Practicing medicine and surgery in different languages

14 Jul 2021

By Gabriela Azevedo Sansoni 

One of the keys to a good healthcare professional and patient rapport is communication. This may seem obvious because it is very generic and can be applied to all human relationships, however, it is often overlooked or forgotten until a certain challenge or barrier makes you face this obvious truth. I have learned this lesson early in my medical education. I moved from Brazil to Italy to study in a six-year programme fully taught in English (mind you, by Italian professors). Since we train in Italian hospitals, we naturally need to become fluent in the local language by the end of the second year. Thankfully, I passed my Italian language exam by the end of the first year and achieved this requirement early on. To make things more interesting, however, I moved to the Netherlands in my third year for a research project, and extended my stay for some clinical and surgical rotations. Learning Dutch was completely different from learning Italian, it has been a bit over a year since I first opened a grammar book to study it and I am still an intermediate level speaker despite all my efforts.

During a Nephrology rotation in the Netherlands, we had a very complex patient that came from Angola. I immediately suggested I could help, and went to visit her with a Dutch colleague. We introduced ourselves in the local language and I didn’t mention that I spoke Portuguese fluently because she seemed to understand Dutch well enough. However, when describing one of her symptoms, namely fever, she got stuck with the word and mumbled febre to herself. I realised it was the right time to intervene and re-introduce myself, this time in Portuguese. She was extremely happy with the fact and gave a lot more details about the history of her disease.

When it comes to surgery, the drawbacks of thinking in a different language appear in the quickness of some interactions and informal chats during the surgical procedure. I can’t complain, however, because I had a very good team that was open to explaining things slowly for me if needed and I did not have any responsibility regarding explaining procedures to patients.

Amid pandemic I was lucky to organize one of my rotations in a university hospital in my hometown, Rio de Janeiro. I knew it would be a challenging job, but I couldn’t wait to see patients who speak Brazilian Portuguese and do the anamnesis in my mother tongue. 

Moreover, I don’t think of stopping there. There are a few places I am curious about in terms of the health system and patient care. Some of them require fluency in another language, such as Luxembourg and its fluency in French and German requirements for foreigners. 

It is true that your native language is the one you feel more comfortable with during a medical visit. I often wait until I am on vacation in Brazil to book a medical appointment. This knowledge certainly motivates me to learn foreign languages up to the highest level possible, because if I ever need to use them for work I will have to be as fluent as a native speaker in order to offer the best care possible. 

Gabriela Azevedo Sansoni is a student at the International Medical School University of Milan. She is the president and founder of the Association of Women Surgeons chapter in her university and coordinates different projects with her peers that aim to bring surgery closer to medical students. Instagram @awsunimi Website:

Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

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