Culture-relative priorities in healthcare

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image by kaniths

It has become commonplace to point out that translators and interpreters not only re-code the message in a different language, but also negotiate cultures. However, concrete examples may demonstrate that this is far from a pretty turn of phrase, even in such seemingly objective and evidence-based disciplines as life sciences. Medical translators and interpreters have to bridge cultures in more than one way; however, in this post I would like to concentrate on the health attitudes differences between the Russian and the American (and perhaps the broader Western) culture.

I will present this as my subjective breakdown of some of the culture-specific health concerns that, while recongized in the one country, are not paid as much heed as in the other.

US health priorities

Dental care

The “Hollywood smile” has almost become an American stereotype. Regular checkups and cleanings are considered obligatory in most families, and people who don’t get them may be disapproved of or even ridiculed. While the newer, more modern, private dental clinics also provide and encourage these preventative services, this practice is relatively new in Russia and is not followed quite so religiously by the general public.

Staying hydrated

Drinking plenty of water is a staple health practice in the US, and is often mentioned in connection with alleviating headaches, hangovers, heat strokes, and the such. Surprising as it may be, older people in Russia may be heard saying “You’re drinking to much!” (referring to water). Once again, we are now talking about the general population’s attitudes and not the medical consensus.

Spreading germs

While Russians realize that germs cause diseases, they do not follow such stringent germ-spread-avoidance measures as people in the US do. For example, Americans no longer sneeze into the palm of their hand and try not to wipe their nose with their hands. These practices, while deemed undesirable, are still common in Russia.

Russian health priorities

Bedrest for fevers and flu

Russians pay attention when told by the doctor to stay in bed for a few days. The general consensus is that a nasty cold/flu will last longer if you try to work/go to school with it. And I don’t mean just the couple days when you have the high fever. I mean as long as you have the disease — granted, that doesn’t apply for a mere runny nose. As a result, Russians may be shocked when children in the US are sent to school with a fever and a DayQuil (this may not be universal, but it did happen to me when I was an exchange student in the US).

Flat feet, scoliosis, and posture

Any bone irregularities are taken very seriously in Russia. For instance, flat feet aren’t shrugged off as a little cosmetic defect that may bring back pain down the road — people with flat feet are encouraged to wear orthopedic insoles and shoes and dissuaded from wearing flats.

Avoiding cold surfaces and drinks

Ironically enough, although Russia is widely associated with cold climates, contact with cold substances/surfaces is considered dangerous in Russia. It is, therefore, not suprising that parents may let a drink from the fridge sit out to reach room temperature before they let their children have it. Similarly, sitting on any cold surfaces like metal or granite is discouraged and avoided as it is thought to cause colds and inner organ inflammations.
My point here is not to ridicule the oddities or “prejudices” of either nation. Even though some may go further than people outside that culture are comfortable with, there is a grain of truth to most of them. Amusing as these differences may be, they pose real challenges to the healthcare interpreter/translator due to the conflicting expectations of the patient and the healthcare professional. Imagine a patient holding any of the notions above try to see a doctor who does not.
Do you have any additions/corrections to the list?

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