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Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Speaking the Language


When someone practices wilderness medicine, it is often the case that he or she is in a foreign country. To interact with the indigenous people, appreciate the culture, and treat patients, it is a huge advantage to be able to speak the local language. How many of us speak a non-native (to us) language? If you are an American, do you speak Spanish, Nepali, Russian, or French? If so, are you fluent, or merely capable of asking for the bathroom and directions to the train station?

Think about the complexities of medical conversation in your native tongue. Doctors struggle to avoid “medi-speak,” so that their patients can understand them. Now try to do this in another language. Not only do you need to speak Norwegian; you need to speak medical Norwegian. The subtleties of any language are magnified when one is trying to deal with an ill person, who may mumble or speak in brief phrases.

An interpreter is essential. I am definitely at a disadvantage, and often embarrassed, when I cannot speak in the language of my guides, porters, assistants, and companions. In the most successful clinics run by volunteers in lands where they do not speak the language, skilled interpreters and medical assistants are essential to the success of the operation, and therefore to the health of the patients. The wilderness is a tough enough place without having to guess what someone is saying.

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photo by Brenda Tiernan
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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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