How to Overcome Language Barriers in Healthcare

Jan 8, 2020

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that at least 350 distinct languages in the United States are spoken at home, including at least 168 in the Washington metropolitan area. And according to the Brookings Institution, roughly one in 10 Americans do not speak fluent English. Many of these Americans face the challenge of finding and navigating accessible healthcare.

Economic access is just one barrier to adequate healthcare. Language access is yet another critical component of equal access, since effective communication allows patients to feel comfortable talking to their doctors and understand vital information about their health. The increasing number of migrant patients means it is absolutely crucial for healthcare facilities to stay up to date with communication services.

Practitioners will be able to provide better solutions to patients’ problems if they have the means to communicate effectively and with a high level of trust. At Liberty Language Services, we are committed to helping your medical practice remain compliant with Language Access laws in order to foster an environment that feels welcoming to speakers of all languages. Here’s our guide to overcoming language barriers in healthcare.


Why language barriers arise in the medical space

Linguistic minorities in the United States rely on effective, fool-proof medical interpretation to talk to their doctors and understand their health. Miscommunication also occurs when there are differences in dialects. Cultural differences can intensify already-difficult communication.

The majority of non-English speaking patients use Spanish and Chinese as their primary language, and other frequently spoken languages include French, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, and Farsi. In a 2015 study published in BMC Health Services, three primary theories help explain why language barriers in healthcare occur.


This theory emphasizes the importance of semantics and syntax for communicating with a patient, arguing that ignoring these two elements can cause alienation.

Conversational Dynamics

An approach that emphasizes the relationship between the practitioner and patient, the conversational dynamics theory asserts that language reflects the power dynamic between the two individuals.

Communication Accommodation Theory

According to the Communication Accommodation Theory, convergence characterizes the nature of a conversation between patient and practitioner. As such, divergence is one cause of language barriers in the medical space. Each party aims to meet the other somewhere in the middle, and an interpreter mindful of this approach will mimic the patient’s speech in certain ways.


Consequences of Communication Barriers

While language barriers pose challenges on an everyday basis, miscommunication in the healthcare industry can become fatal. Without adequate strategies and language solutions in place to ensure effective communication, patients can lose the incentive to seek the healthcare they need. Patients suffering from pain or illness are already anxious, and when patients cannot understand their doctors, errors are more likely to occur.

Addressing language barriers are critical for providing a healthcare facility that feels safe, trustworthy, and accommodating to all individuals.


How to Overcome Language Barriers in Healthcare

Hospitals and medical practitioners across the globe are now beginning to understand the importance

of language access in health care. Tools and techniques have been developed to address language barriers. In the United States, under an Affordable Care Act Amendment added in 2016, healthcare facilities are mandated by the federal government to provide “qualified interpreters” if they receive federal funding. Different models exist for increasing linguistic accessibility, but the best ones combine various strategies to accommodate non-native speakers. Here are some that you should consider using.

Find out more about Liberty Language Services for healthcare facilities.


Hire Bilingual Staff

In private healthcare facilities (which are not government funded, including some specialty care hospitals, nursing homes, and outpatient care) and at funded healthcare facilities (which includes most hospitals, all of which must comply with the Affordable Care Act), patients rely on family members and friends to communicate with their practitioners. If these individuals are proficient in both languages, they may be able to help with communication, but this situation presents a series of problems.

While it is easy for the patient to communicate with their near and dear ones, they are not necessarily well-versed in medical terminology. The doctor has no way of knowing whether or not the patient understands what’s being communicated, and this ends up being a deadly game of telephone.

Not only might these temporary interpreters lack the appropriate language proficiency, but familial interpreting compromises patient-doctor confidentiality. They become responsible for holding important patient information, which eventually creates more problems rather than solving the existing ones.

For hospitals, providing an environment that’s safe and welcoming for all patients is of the utmost importance. A patient’s experience begins even before they interact with their doctor. From the receptionist in the front office to nurses in the hallway, all interactions influence a patient’s comfort levels at a healthcare facility. Having a more diverse staff with individuals who understand more than one language can comfort a patient and make them feel less alienated.

Having medical practitioners on staff who are fluent in a language that’s common in your region helps a patient feel comfortable enough to share important, confidential information. This ensures appropriate and effective diagnosis, and eliminates possible errors in communication.


Use Universal Signs and Symbols

Sign language is a common mode of communication, especially for patients with a speech or hearing impairment. Medical practitioners and linguists from around the globe are already working towards developing a universal sign language for healthcare facilities. These symbols will be helpful not only for those with speech or auditory impairments but to bridge communication between people who speak different languages.



Create a Standardized Language Bank for Your Facility

Many hospitals and healthcare providers currently waste valuable resources on poorly translated materials and heavily rely on Google Translate for their written communication. This not only creates an unwanted situation of panic and anxiety, but adds a general aura of distrust.

Therefore, formalizing a structure of communication methods for healthcare facilities is very important. Having a formal structure of language will make it more effective and less time-consuming. In addition, this language bank will help in providing necessary training for interpreters, assessing the quality of service provided by these interpreters, and eventually maintaining an updated record of individuals with bilingual proficiency and allot them to the team accordingly.


Involve Professional Interpreter Services

Clearly, your entire staff of medical practitioners won’t be able to speak every language that each patient prefers to speak. In addition to finding bilingual practitioners, hiring translators and interpreters with fluency in two languages can pioneer effective communication and relieve the burden of translation from the doctors themselves. These professionals are skilled in both languages and are also familiar with HIPAA regulations and medical language. At Liberty Language Services, interpretation can also be provided over the phone. These services are crucial for providing interpretation in commonly spoken languages as well as less commonly spoken languages.

Related: Why Technological Interpreting Services Are Necessary, Easy Tools



Who Are Medical Interpreters?

Interpreters act as a conduit between two individuals who prefer to speak in different languages by understanding and accurately interpreting oral communication. A medical interpreter is one with in-depth knowledge of medical terminology in both languages for effective communication between the medical care provider and the patient. In addition, they must be culturally sensitive and able to understand nonverbal cues.


Why Are Medical Interpreters Vital for Your Healthcare Facility?

These professionals work according to specialty areas and across a wide variety of medical facilities including hospitals, diagnostic centers, mental health facilities, and mental rehabilitation clinics.

Interpreters must have good listening skills, technical knowledge, and an ability to think on their feet so that they’re able to communicate accurately.

Depending on the availability, these interpreter services are divided into three broad categories:

On-Site Interpreting (OSI): In this case, the interpreters are physically present in the consultation room and are therefore able to see and hear both the parties involved.

Over-the-Phone Interpreting (OPI): In case there is no On-Site interpreter available, when calling the interpreter physically will delay the process, it becomes easier to speak with the designated parties through phone.

Video Remote Interpreting (VRI): Another alternative to On-Site interpreters, where getting trained interpreters becomes a challenge, medical facilities prefer using a high-quality camera and microphone to communicate with the designated parties. This enables the interpreter to see and hear the speakers as well as to pick up on non-verbal cues which are missed in OPI.

Liberty Language Services provides all of the above.

In the medical interview, when a patient is sharing the details of his/her discomfort, an interpreter must be able to communicate the patient’s situation to them with clarity and accuracy. This communication is important because it’s the only way a doctor can give an accurate diagnosis with the correct follow-up steps. Similarly, when the details of a diagnosis or treatment are to be communicated to the patient, it is important that the person responsible interprets the crucial details with utmost seriousness. They must accurately convey the associated risk factors of an illness, side effects of treatment, and other vital information.

If the interpreter fails in interpreting information completely and accurately, chances are the doctor won’t be able to provide an accurate diagnosis and will end up treating the patient incorrectly. Simultaneously, the patient may fail to comply with the instructions and unknowingly worsen their situation.

It is these skills that make the role of a medical interpreter vital.

If you’re interested in OPI, OSI, or VRI, contact Liberty Language Services for a quote.


Laws and Regulations about Accessibility and Accommodation

Miscommunication due to language barriers aren’t a new problem – it’s an unfortunate, yet highly prevalent issue across the globe.

However, federal laws are beginning to express demands for linguistic services for patients with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). Title VI of the US Civil Rights Act states that people cannot be discriminated against as a result of their national origin, which has been extrapolated to include primary language by the US Office for Civil Rights and Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition, health care organizations that receive federal funds are expected to provide services in a language that a patient with LEP can understand. The Joint Commission, the main hospital accreditation body in the US, requires that hospitals collect and record patients’ preferred languages for discussing health care and have included in their standards the use of qualified medical interpreters for patients whose preferred language is not English.


 Final Note

Overcoming language barriers is a multifaceted process that requires implementation of different strategies. It certainly helps to hire bilingual staff, use universal signs and symbols, and other standardized modes of communications, but it is also vital to hire high-quality interpretation services. This ensures that all patients have access to your facility no matter how common or uncommon their preferred language. Liberty Language Services has over 500 interpreters in the DMV area, and North Carolina, all with relevant credentials like CMI and CHI. Find out how to hire our services and improve communication at your healthcare facility for all of your patients.

Related: Language Interpreting in Education Settings: A Growing Specialization

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