I need proper medical Help! Will I get any? – by Thea Breitenmoser


I decided to have a look at how well a person who does not speak any of the four Swiss national languages and therefore would lean towards speaking English, either as a first language (L1) or additional language (L2 /+), experiences the Universitätsspital in Basel. The cantonal hospital is the biggest health center in the whole of the north-western part of Switzerland and has approximately 7’911 employees. Deriving from that it is clear, that this hospital stands at the center of attention when medical help is sought, even more, since the emergency tract is also the contact point of access in northeastern Switzerland.

Luckily, I never had to go to the hospital (knock on wood), but most people already had paid a visit to such an institution either in their home country or maybe even abroad. This led me to wonder how well people speaking English are received in my hometown when a medical issue needs to be taken care of. The place of the hospital was chosen since it is one place where communication is key, otherwise, misunderstandings can lead to confusion, misdiagnosis, and maybe in the most extreme case, death. Thus, how good is the overall care  when it comes to the infrastructural communication of a hospital? Is it a place where patients who only speak English can feel understood and safe?

Source: Pexels

The research done entailed a questionnaire which I had the opportunity to give to a friend to distribute at the hospital since it is also her workplace. Most people who participated in the survey have a visible job, meaning that they spend a lot of their working time in direct contact with the patients; and are therefore also the representing faces of the place. To find out how the use of the English language is perceived and enacted I formulated my research questions in the following direction:  How many times does the staff have to draw back on their English knowledge or maybe other languages they know? This question leads to the big question of whether the hospital can be seen as an open and approachable place for English speakers who do not speak any of the Swiss national languages. Is the lingua franca used or is being drawn back on other languages the staff brings along privately? And ultimately, do the members of the staff try to avoid speaking English, and more importantly do they feel they can provide less good care in English since it is not their L1, L2, etc.?

The results were quite conclusive, meaning that most people felt their English competency to be good (of a level B1/B2) or just enough to comprehend the matter and react upon it correctly. Nevertheless, two employees do not speak English at all and both are nurses, who therefore either communicate through their hands and feet or get someone else if it is also no language they know. Those were also two out of the four people who do not feel the hospital can provide as good care to English-speaking patients as for Swiss, German, French, or Italian patients. Rather is the hospital very diverse when it comes to other languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, Tamil, Turkish, Kurdish, etc.

Out of the seventeen, six share the opinion that they are not as competent in their work in English as in let’s say, German, French and Italian. The others consequently are at ease when they must speak English, and that in general is rather easy since it mostly happens verbally and rarely or very seldomly in written form.

For three people English is not likely used, either because they do not speak it at all, feel they are not competent enough or feel like since it is a Swiss hospital in the German part, patients should try to speak in German if they want something since, they do not and cannot speak English, so why would they have to try?

Additionally, there is no communicated requirement of the knowledge of the English language: The requirement is rather to speak at least two of the following four languages, those being: French, German, English, or Italian.

There is also a visible tendency of older employees to speak rather romance-languages and German, ranging from French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese and the younger employees speak mainly English as a second language.

To conclude, therefore, it is safe to go to the Universitätsspital in Basel as an only English-speaking patient and ask for help; you will get it! It might take time; you maybe won’t have the perfect English standard but most times you will be understood and if not, the employees always can get help or for you, redirect you to another person if something is vague or unclear or try it with your hand and feet. Nevertheless, I hope you stay healthy and far away from the hospital!

By Thea Breitenmoser