09/27/2014 09:07 EDT | Updated 11/27/2014 05:59 EST

N.W.T. doctors say language is barrier to good health

Doctors in the Northwest Territories say one of the biggest barriers to good health for Northerners is language. 

The Northwest Territories has 11 official languages, including nine aboriginal languages. 

Doctors usually speak one or two of those languages, but some say there's still work to be done in making sure patients get the message.

Dr. Sam Wong uses an anatomy app to help his patients understand, showing them the body part on his cell phone, which will indicate where the problem is.

He says people are more likely to follow medical instructions if they know what's going on.

"A large part of our problem is health care providers not always being cognizant of the fact that they're using terminology that most people don't know."

And for Wong, that means patients might get sicker or they might avoid the doctor's office altogether.

'Just ask the question'

Dr. Nicole Redvers is a naturopathic doctor in Yellowknife, and says for many who don't speak a lot of English, the doctor's visit is only as good as their interpreter. 

She says elderly people are the most vulnerable.

"You can think of an example between an elderly man and a granddaughter," Redvers said. "If she's translating, and the message is about the prostate — well, we don't want to talk about that.

"You know, you always want to have that feeling that someone's made an informed choice about their care, and you know, if there's an inkling not, of course you don't have that confidence that they'll follow through with the instructions accordingly to have improvements in their health goals."

Like Wong, Redvers says visual tools make a world of a difference. 

She hopes to see more trained interpreters escort people to doctors' visits. 

In the meantime, Wong says patients need to know there is no such thing as a stupid question. 

"Just ask the question, because if you don't understand, have them explain it to you. And explain to you in a simpler form, or with diagrams," Wong said.