Shirley Acquah, Ph.D. Language Barriers in Health Care: Negotiating Multilingualism and Vocabulary Challenges

Westfield State Communication Department professor Shirley Acquah researches the impact of effective communication within the socio-cultural context of health care. Relocating from Ghana to the United States for graduate study, her research also includes the impact of health literacy in developing communities.

In many countries, patients lack proficiency in the official language, and communication is largely determined by socio-cultural factors. Each culture has its own way of communicating distress both by the presentation of illness and others’ response to it. Through continuous empirical research, Acquah strives to initiate a holistic interaction between providers and patients.

“The impact of effective communication can sometimes be underestimated. Hence, my desire to pursue research that will help me understand the field and make a difference in my community,” says Acquah.

Her research utilized interviews and focus group discussions to examine a medical culture where multilingualism presents challenges for patients and physicians. Specifically, the study investigated how health care providers interact with their patients by detailing and identifying the language barriers between providers and patients.

“Because medical training of physicians privileges English language over indigenous dialects, physicians have little interpretation of medical vocabulary into indigenous dialects,” she says.

Professor Acqua speaks eight dialects and holds a Master’s in Communication and Development Studies and Ph.D. in Organizational and Health Communication from Ohio University.

Moreover, the absence of health care interpreting services means reliance on ad hoc interpreters, which results in translation errors and miscommunication for patients and physicians. Consequently, problems with language barriers predispose low literate patients to misinformation, misdiagnosis, and lack of follow- through regarding treatment plans.

When asked what excites her about research, Acquah says, “having the opportunity to interact with participants and the possible policy initiatives that can result from the research.”

Recently, as part of her Health Communication class, Acquah’s students partnered with the Red Cross for a Measles-Rubella vaccine campaign. Her students raised nearly $450 for the initiative that has helped vaccinate one billion children in eighty developing countries.

A frequent traveler to under-developed countries, Acquah shares her cultural experiences and information with her students in the classroom. She explains, “so that students can connect theory with practice in the real world through active civic engagement.”