Why Language is Important in the Healthcare Setting (Part 1)

According to the US Census Bureau, as of 2017 more than 20 percent of the US population (61.8 million people) speaks a language other than English at home. The resulting language barrier can be frustrating, if not life threatening, when it comes to healthcare.

For those living in the US with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), simple day-to-day tasks can be a challenge. In the healthcare setting, such a language barrier can be dangerous, or even life threatening. Imagine getting hurt or becoming ill in a foreign country, trying to communicate symptoms to a doctor or healthcare provider. Or filling out intake forms, reading warning labels, and following prescriptions orders written in a language that you don’t speak. With limited language proficiency, medical care can quickly become overwhelming.


Poor Patient Outcomes

When we take a closer look at doctor-patient outcomes when a language barrier is present, studies indicate patients with limited English proficiency receive less preventative care, are less likely to adhere to medication regimens, and are more likely to leave the hospital against medical advice. The good news is, with some professional resources added for on-demand interpreting or even video remote interpreting, patient outcomes can be vastly improved.


The Family Approach

An approach often taken by health care workers when an adequate interpreter is unavailable is to have a patient’s family members act as interpreters. Several cases in a UC Berkeley School of Public Health study report the use of a child, sibling, or parent as an interpreter – but this approach often backfires.

For starters, a bilingual family member is unlikely to be conversant in the medical terminology needed to properly interpret patient medical history, or diagnosis. A second factor is that family members cannot be impartial, as they may mislead or omit information in order to avoid dealing with personally painful circumstances or to protect their loved ones from difficult truths. The use of children in medical interpreting is particularly risky, and in some cases the children acting as interpreters were also the patients. Adding the burden of having a child act as interpreter when they are simultaneously receiving medical care only makes the situation worse for a patient.


Culture & Dialects Are Big Hurdles

A major hurdle to overcome in the medical field involves language barriers and lack of proper training for doctors and other medical professionals when confronted with non-English speaking patients. As reported by UC Berkeley, conflicting records show that healthcare workers were not even certain what language a patient spoke in multiple cases. For example, if a patient was correctly identified as Chinese, providers failed to consider the possibility of further barriers manifested by language dialects.

Additionally, even within a local community there can be several cultural barriers that affect communication. Take for instance, within the Chicago metro area, if someone speaks Spanish, that could mean they are from South America, Mexico, or even Europe. These populations have very different cultural nuances that should be taken into account in an interpreting setting as well.

Is your medical facility in need of language interpreters for the healthcare setting? We’re here to help. Let’s Get in Touch!