Language barriers can come in many forms, and reducing language barriers in healthcare needs to be innovative and detailed. Immigrants and limited English proficient (LEP) individuals have historically been marginalized and discriminated against due to accents or language capabilities, despite being integral members of our society 

Healthcare is one of the many areas where LEP individuals face communication challenges, sometimes resulting in negative experiences, care, and outcomes. These types of experiences may lead to avoiding care as a whole, resulting in more severe impacts on health when faced with things like: 

  • Not having or using interpreters 
  • Communicating with bilingual but untrained staff 
  • Using ad hoc interpreters like family (who aren’t medical professionals and may misinterpret) 
  • Stacking all appointments with interpreters together, which limits the patients’ equal access to different appointment times 
  • Choosing to skip or limit standard procedures (like family debriefs between rounds) due to language abilities.  
  • Facilities that use technology like machine translation instead of humans in critical places resulting in incorrect information 

Not providing full and meaningful language access creates uncertainty and complexity for the patient. To work towards an equity-based healthcare system that reduces health disparities, it’s important to make strides that create the opposite environment, working to eliminate harsh histories of discrimination. Healthcare organizations can do this by focusing on innovative ways to support and encourage the LEP voice in healthcare experiences.  

Improving Access to All Healthcare Members Helps the Entire Organization  

To work towards a healthcare system that promotes equity for all, we need to actively work to reduce longstanding disparities in innovative ways. After all, improving access to care benefits LEP and underrepresented communities, and it improves the healthcare organization as a whole.  

Organizations can start by creating a framework to advocate for and advance health equity. To create a culture of health equity, language should be written into internal procedures and processes, and training should be provided for staff. In addition, the messaging should be written into any content that involves patient quality and safety, and have a plan with measurable goals for improving care.  

Here are some of the benefits that organizations can see. 

#1. Reduced Costs for Providing Care 

If language preference isn’t addressed during a clinical encounter, the patient may receive lower quality and costlier care. LEP patients have an increased chance of readmission, risk of surgical delays, and longer hospital stays if an interpreter wasn’t available during admission and/or discharge.  

In looking at readmissions, a study showed that over a 3-year period, readmissions were significantly fewer when telephone interpreters were available. Per the report, “language access represents an important service that all medical centers should provide to achieve equitable, high quality health care.” 

#2. Improved Care and Plan Performance by Educating Members 

One study found that only nine percent of people understand their health insurance. And that’s for people who speak English. For LEP patients, the complexity rises. However, when members understand their plan, it results in taking more action and receiving better care. Healthcare companies can help make their content easier for LEP members by translating their content, providing language access during the enrollment assistance program, and creating an outreach program to educate LEP communities.  

When members understand their health insurance, financial incentives to seek higher quality doctors and hospitals can work. As a result, plan members can receive better care and plan performance can improve. 

#3. Increased Patient Satisfaction Ratings 

Improving patient satisfaction is a win-win for individuals and organizations alike. For patients, a better experience is directly tied to the process and providers of the care they receive, leading to better health outcomes.  

On the business side, better patient experiences are tied to services provider loyalty, greater employee satisfaction and reduced turnover, financial incentives, and lower medical malpractice risks.  

Staff Can Foster a More Inclusive and Welcoming Environment 

Staff can do a lot for LEP patients and their families if the environment is supportive and has the necessary resources for reducing language barriers in healthcare. 

#1. Provide Meaningful Language Access 

Organizations can support and encourage their staff to provide meaningful language access by using interpreters and sharing translated materials. Having a strategic and cohesive language access plan including training can help staff be better prepared and ready to help patients. 

#2. Standardize Healthcare Handoffs 

Patient handoffs are one of the most dangerous times of a patient’s care. And adding a language difference on top of that makes a situation even more complex. To minimize the difficulties during these times, standardize the process of language access during handoffs. For example, have an interpreter available during handoffs. 

#3. Encourage Patients and Their Families to Speak Up 

A study by JAMA Pediatrics found that children and their parents who face language barriers are two times less likely to say they’re unafraid of “asking questions when something does not seem right” and five times less likely to say they “feel free to question the decisions or actions of health care providers. 

Providers should do more to make patients feel safe to speak up and ask questions. One way to help with this is to train staff to talk to LEP patients and their families about their care. Consider how questions are phrased. Simple yes or no questions are less encouraging for speaking up about questions or doubts. Providers can use questioning-tactics like asking the family to repeat their understanding, or what they can help further clarify are a few ways to encourage question-asking in a safe environment.  

#4. Encourage Patients to Use Language Access 

Even if patients speak some English, encourage them and their families to use an interpreter. Federal law requires that hospitals provide interpreters free of charge to those with LEP, so it’s their right to ask for this service. While a family member can pitch in if there isn’t another option, this can risk an increase of misunderstandings and create unnecessary complications. Therefore, it’s best to have a professional medical interpreter help with LEP patients. 

Conclusion to Reducing Language Barriers in Healthcare

Breaking through language barriers benefits LEP patients, their families, and healthcare organizations. Good care results in trust in providers, positive patient experiences, and better health outcomes.  

We provide interpreter services for healthcare organizations, and we translate member and marketing materials. We want to help healthcare organizations reduce health inequities. For more information about our healthcare services, contact us at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040.