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Posted on  June 11, 2018


When Language Becomes a Barrier to Medical Care

“I don’t understand.” These three words are of concern to every medical professional.

The broad canvas that is the United States of America brings in new citizens from around the world. Statistics show that in 2016, 1.49 million foreign-born individuals moved to the United States, with India as the leading country of origin, followed by China and Mexico.

With one in five people speaking a language other than English at home, this can present a problem when it comes to proper healthcare.

Many scholarly articles have been published about this, including a recent published study which took place on one floor of an academic hospital from July 15, 2008 to Mar 14, 2009 with patients 50+ years of age. The study followed a dual-handset interpreter telephone at every bedside and concluded “comprehensive language access represents an important, high value service that all medical centers should provide to achieve equitable, quality healthcare for vulnerable LEP (Limited English Proficient) populations.”

The most interesting outcome of the trial, however, showed that proper communications in the initial admissions phase averted an estimated 119 readmissions thus saving the hospital an estimated $161,040 a month, even factoring into the extra cost of interpreter services.

In July 2016, a provision of the Affordable Healthcare Act required any healthcare provider or insurance company using Federal dollars to provide a qualified interpreter, either in person or over the phone, to patients with limited English skills.

This often involves bilingual healthcare workers being called away from their day-to-day tasks to be involved in a doctor/patient situation – not ideal for the proper running of a hospital or medical clinic.

Here are some ways you and your team can bridge the language gap:

  • If you speak slowly and calmly, it’s possible the patient understands more than you think, but this is not a replacement for a proper interpreter.
  • Insist that a family member accompany the patient to translate. This may not always be possible, but it is the best option.
  • Friends or family members aren’t medical professionals. So remember, they may forget or not completely understand everything. Ask them to write down any important information.
  • Encourage questions from both the patient and caregiver. As long as they go away with as much knowledge as possible, they are better equipped to move forward with treatment.

Your medical facility can also:

  • Have on hand a series of “multi-lingual health sheets.” Languages should include Spanish, Hindi and Mandarin.
  • Film videos on key health subjects in-house using a native speaker and share them on your YouTube or Vimeo channel. This one-off expense doesn’t need to break the bank. You don’t need sophisticated video equipment, just a native Spanish, Hindi and Mandarin speaker,
  • Employ a diverse team. This means people who are bilingual in a number of languages.
  • Engage a professional tele-interpreter service.

Ultimately, the last option is the best because it covers every single language, not just the top three. What is certain is that better communication between doctors and patients leads to better outcomes.

How do you currently deal with language barriers?

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