By 2050, the world population will grow to more than nine billion people, according to the U.S. Census. As our world grows more diverse, so do the languages associated with different populations. Today, there are at least 6,909 distinct, known languages, and as globalization continues to grow, the number of non-native English speaking people living in the United States will grow in parallel. For the healthcare industry, this means hospitals and health systems must think about how this plays into patient engagement and care. Communication is crucial to managing patient relationships, caring for patients and working with their families to follow treatment plans correctly.
U.S. law requires hospitals to provide medically trained interpreters for patients with limited-English proficiency. This requirement aims to bridge the patients’ needs with how physicians plan to care for these needs.
How do healthcare organizations acquire interpreters?
When it comes to providing interpretive services, healthcare organizations have several options. Some hospitals that have significant limited English proficiency (LEP) populations keep interpreters on staff. Others rely on relationships with interpretation agencies to bring in interpreters as needed. Many facilities use remote, on-demand interpreters either over-the-phone or on video. More often than not a hospital will rely on a combination of these resources.
Perhaps the most important component of any language access network in healthcare is agility. Take the incoming Syrian refugee population – suddenly Arabic interpreters are in demand in areas they never worked in before. Healthcare facilities have to remain nimble to meet their patients’ needs. Interpretation needs can change over night, and hospitals need to be ready to respond.
It’s no surprise that the communication landscape is evolving. While face-to-face conversation will always be an important form of interaction, individuals are increasingly engaging in dialogue — both personal and professional — with the help of technology (Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, etc.).
These technologies have influenced new programs in the healthcare industry, and telemedicine has taken flight. Through one-on-one conferencing with doctors, either over-the-phone or via video, programs like Doctor on Demand and AnywhereCare connect patients with doctors in as little as 30 minutes, diagnosing everything from the common cold to sprains.
Technology and the rise in global communication have made their impact on language services in medical facilities as well. With a non-English speaking population that represents 20 percent of the population and has grown 81 percent since 1990, healthcare interpreting — whether it occurs face-to-face, over the phone or via video — is incredibly crucial to ensure accurate patient communication and, ultimately, safe medical practices.
Interpreting in the medical industry is nothing new. Healthcare providers have long brought interpreters into their facilities to bridge conversations with patients who speak a language other than English. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required medical providers to use interpreters when necessary. With an increasingly diverse population, this policy was reinforced by President Clinton’s Executive Order 13166 in 2000, which sought to improve access to services for people with limited English proficiency.
While the need for interpreting in healthcare is evergreen, the language industry has more services available now than ever before. Medical interpreting has a broader set of options when it comes to communicating.
Consider this scenario: You rush into the hospital, your loved-one cradled in your arms. You had found them unconscious in the bathroom moments before and think you may know what had happened. You just have to tell the doctors so that they can treat them right away and save their life. Time is of the essence, though, and you fear the worst may happen if they don’t receive the right treatment immediately. The doctors run over and ask you over and over again, “What happened? Did they take anything? Do you know what is wrong?” You open your mouth to speak, but everything you say is met with confused looks. You can tell the doctors cannot understand anything you are saying. After multiple attempts, the doctors take your loved-one away into another room, knowing that they have not comprehended anything you were trying to tell them and are unsure what is wrong with your loved-one. You want to scream, because you know exactly what they need to do, but you can’t do anything about it. You gradually realize that this may be the last time you see your loved-one.
You may think it’s a scenario out of the Twilight Zone or some bad dream. However, it’s a regular occurrence for many people throughout this country.
Language barriers have long been an issue in the healthcare field. More than 46 million people in the United States do not speak English as their primary language, yet everyone needs medical care at one point or another. This language-gap can cause serious issues with miscommunication between the doctor and the patient, which can result in a lack of proper treatment and can even lead to potentially fatal medical-related errors.
Despite this serious issue, currently most hospitals provide only limited interpreting services, or more often than not, no services at all. In those circumstances, doctors must rely solely on the patient’s family members, friends or non-fluent bilingual staff members to help communicate with the patient or the patient’s family. These “ad hoc” interpreters are less likely to tell patients about medication side effects and more likely to misinterpret or omit questions asked by health care providers. This is not their fault, of course, as most individuals are not familiar with what information is pertinent, or even how to translate certain medical-related jargon. Despite their best efforts at being thorough, they may be unconsciously leaving out important details.