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Bilingual Nurses in Demand More Than Ever


The U.S. is more racially diverse than ever, and the dynamic population is driving unprecedented demand for bilingual nurses. Between shifting demographics and the COVID-19 pandemic that has disproportionately affected minority groups, there is a significant need for nurses who can communicate with patients across multiple languages — beyond just English and Spanish. Cultural competency and language diversity in healthcare is largely a matter of patient safety.

"When compared to English-speaking counterparts, LEP [limited English proficiency] patients have a greater risk of line infections, surgical infections, falls, pressure ulcers and surgical delays," says the website Nurse.com. "They also have a greater chance of readmissions for certain chronic conditions due to difficulties with understanding how to manage their condition and take their medications."

A nurse who speaks the same language as their patient can overcome these communication barriers and ensure a higher quality of care, without waiting for an interpreter to intervene or relying on a family member's translation.

What Demographic Changes Are Driving Demand for Bilingual Nurses?

Major shifts in demographics means "the nation is diversifying even faster than predicted," reports the Brookings Institution. The following chart demonstrates how the race-ethnic distribution has changed over the past several decades in the U.S.:   

Race-ethnic profile

1980

2000

2019

White

79.6%

69.1%

60.1%

Black

11.5%

12.1%

12.5%

Latino/Hispanic

6.5%

12.6%

18.5%

Asian Americans

1.5%

3.8%

5.9%

American Indian/Alaska Native

0.6%

0.7%

0.7%

Approximately 40% of Americans under the age of 16 now identify as a racial or ethnic group other than white, as of 2019 data. The Brookings Institution found that between 2010 and 2019, "racial and ethnic minorities accounted for all of the nation's population growth, and were responsible for population gains in many states, metropolitan areas and counties."  

Has Healthcare Legislation Impacted the Need for Bilingual Nurses?

A renewed focus on patient rights and safety has also bolstered bilingual nursing demand. The Affordable Care Act mandates that hospitals and healthcare facilities participating in Medicare, Medicaid or Marketplace plans make reasonable accommodations for LEP patients. This means providing access to an interpreter or other language assistance services, often via the phone or remote video, if no one is available in person.

Although most nurses pick up on a few words or phrases of various languages, it is not usually enough to communicate fluently with LEP patients. To achieve true sociolinguistic competence, the site Minority Nurse says, it takes "years of study or at least a six-month immersion in a country's language." Bilingual and multilingual nurses tend to better grasp the cultural norms and nuances of a language, so having them on-site and at the bedside can facilitate communication and ensure positive health outcomes for vulnerable patients.  

Are There Ways to Increase the Bilingual Nursing Workforce?

Nursing programs should take steps to increase the enrollment of fluent speakers from all racial and ethnic groups. Below are the top languages spoken in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and those that likely warrant greater representation in healthcare:

  • Spanish
  • Chinese
  • Vietnamese
  • Korean
  • Russian
  • Arabic
  • Tagalog
  • Polish
  • French
  • Haitian Creole
  • Portuguese
  • Japanese

However, attracting a wider range of nursing students isn't enough. Those who speak a primary language other than English likely also need additional support in the classroom as well as managing work and family responsibilities. Nurse educators can combat these challenges by revising curricula to better accommodate these multilingual students by offering tutoring and mentorship opportunities and grouping similar students into cohorts to establish a stronger peer network.

Demand for bilingual nurses is at an all-time high. Nurses who speak multiple languages are likely to have a competitive edge when job hunting, as their presence can improve safety for patients of all backgrounds.

Learn more about Northern Kentucky University's Master of Science in Nursing – Nursing Education Concentration online program.


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