Language Barriers in Healthcare

Nov 9, 2022 | Language

Sources of Language Barriers in Healthcare

Globalisation creates opportunities and challenges in the world of healthcare. More people are moving to different parts of the world for work, education, and other reasons. Various ethnicities move to other parts of the world to seek out better opportunities and to build new communities. Therefore, it is not uncommon to encounter people from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds in your area, which adds to the diversity of the language and to the community at large.

However, from a healthcare and medical perspective, some issues are arising here. Many of these immigrants suffer as a result of the language barrier they experience. While many people don’t speak fluent English, many more don’t speak English at all. This can be an issue if most of these non-English speaking residents move within your organisation’s service area. As a healthcare provider, it becomes your responsibility to ensure that you adapt to their needs and that you are able to bridge the language barriers in healthcare to overcome health inequity.

Your inability to address this language proficiency issue among non-English speaking patients can result in health disparities. It could even put patient safety at risk! Since health is one of the basic human services, healthcare organisations hold the burden of ensuring optimum healthcare quality and reducing the risk of medical errors by doing a systematic review of their existing policies.

It’s safe to say that we haven’t seen the end of the migration activities yet. There are even countries that are loosening their borders to encourage migrants to move into their cities and countries. It is important for healthcare providers and organisations to think one step ahead and devise strategies to overcome communication barriers, especially in providing language assistance services, to avoid alienating non-English speaking patients.

My Language Connection Language Barriers in Healthcare 1| My Language Connection Impact of Language Barriers

Before you can determine the ways to combat language barriers in the healthcare field, it is important to understand its potential impact. Healthcare is vital to human life and it could also be risky when services are not accurate or do not match the needs of patients. A lack of patient education can also limit the healthcare quality that patients receive from their healthcare providers.

Understanding the risk of language barriers in healthcare will better inform your strategies for dealing with these communication barriers.

1. Risk of Medication Errors

The patient’s information and medical history should be taken into account when administering medication to patients. However, language barriers can make this a difficult practice, especially since healthcare workers must confirm this information with the patient first. Unless the patient fully comprehends the information that is required from them, this could be an issue.

Giving medication to patients is a basic healthcare practice that is rarely given thought by healthcare professionals. And yet, this is also one area of healthcare that has led to many adverse events in various healthcare settings. When patient understanding and language proficiency is an issue, it is important that professional interpreters intervene.

The use of professional interpreters and other strategies to combat language barriers is a must when administering new medications. It is crucial that language assistance is provided for patients who don’t speak English because patient teaching is vital for their safety and to ensure the effectiveness of the administered medication.

2. Inaccurate Patient Assessment

Language barriers can impact various aspects of medical practice and providing health care. One of those areas is in terms of assessing patient needs and conditions.

For example, non-English speaking patients might have difficulty describing to their healthcare provider about the pain scale of their condition. Without proper comprehension of the patient’s pain level, there is a gap in aligning the pain management and treatment methods with the patient’s needs. This can lead to poor quality health care and a frustrating experience for the patient.

Pain assessment is just one example of how a lack of effective communication in the medical and healthcare setting can impact the design of an appropriate treatment plan.

3. Poor Health Outcomes

The initial assessment of the patient’s condition is just one of the many ways that stress the importance of addressing language barriers. When English is not the patient’s native language, it can cause a higher level of psychological stress for the patient. Due to the poor experience and lack of effective communication, they are less likely to go back to their follow-up appointments and follow through with their treatment plan.

The downside to this is that the patient will develop a sense of mistrust of the healthcare system. It’s not just the particular healthcare provider or organisation that they had a bad experience with – it’s the industry as a whole. Trust is a crucial aspect of the patient-provider relationship, especially if the goal is to deliver the best healthcare quality.

The inability to overcome language barriers can create an unhealthy cycle of events. Patients are more likely to visit the emergency department and will be readmitted. However, until the language gap is bridged, this chain will continue and the quality of health care provided to patients will continue to suffer.

4. Health Inequity

Language barriers in health care are more likely to lead to health inequity. If you want to promote easy access to quality health care and patient education, it’s important to address language barriers. If not, then a lack of language access will continue to block patients from getting the level of patient care that they deserve.

The current health policies are not helping either. A systematic review is vital to protect the rights of patients who don’t have English as their native language. The impact of language barriers is not just about having access to health care; it is also about promoting inclusiveness in your organisation and ensuring that it is a part of your organisational culture.

What’s Lacking in Current Health Policies?

My Language Connection Language Barriers in Healthcare 5| My Language Connection As mentioned above, the issue of language barriers in healthcare is more expansive than it appears. In the US, there are laws that are designed to ensure there will be no discrimination towards non-English speaking patients. However, there are no clear guidelines on how to implement these policies.

Another issue is the lack of compliance among hospitals and medical care organisations. So, what can be done to address the inefficiencies of the healthcare policies on language barriers?

There are two things that experts suggest to address this. The first one is to hire qualified professional medical interpreters. Working with medical interpreters has shown tremendous benefits in health care delivery to patients, such as lower readmission rates, improved patient health outcomes, and wider health care use. Without proper language access, it can lead to costly effects in terms of harm to patients and financial damages.

Another way to address the lacking health policies is to provide language assistance services. It will involve language service providers working closely with clinicians and patient-facing healthcare staff to ensure that any gaps are identified and addressed. This approach will ensure that the linguistically diverse community is served effectively and has access to quality patient care.

Overcome Language Barriers in Healthcare

With the rapid globalisation in the health and medical field, it is important to come up with effective strategies to overcome language barriers. There are many tools and technologies developed with the goal of making healthcare more linguistically available and providing avenues for effective communication between healthcare providers and patients.

Hire Bilingual Staff

Simplify your quest of providing accessible healthcare services by hiring bilingual staff. A healthcare organisation consisting of staff that speak more than one language can work to your advantage. It would be easier for them to communicate with patients in their native language, especially when explaining medical terminology and other aspects of the treatment process.

Standardised Language Bank

Come up with a standardised language bank that you can refer to for effective communication within your facility. A formal language structure is utilised for training your healthcare staff, along with medical interpreters. Make sure you update this language bank to promote language proficiency within your facility.

Using Universal Signs and Symbols

There are universal signs and symbols that are employed by the medical and healthcare industry designed to make it easier to communicate. You can rely on these recognisable signs and symbols to overcome language barriers and to make it easier for patients to understand what is being communicated to them.

Hiring Professional Medical Interpreters

One of the most effective ways of addressing language barriers in healthcare is to hire professional medical interpreters and/or work with a language services provider that offers a full range of medical translation services. This approach is vital when your bilingual staff is limited in the languages they are well-versed in. Meanwhile, medical interpreters have mastery of various languages, especially when dealing with medical terminology. You can tap into that expertise to improve your delivery of health and human services.

Other Strategies to Overcome Language Barriers in Healthcare

  • Healthcare professional smiling with patient Set the stage for good communication. Involve your patients in the decision-making process, especially in their communication needs. Make sure your decision matches their needs.
  • All patient communication must be done verbally and in writing to assist in the communication process and in overcoming language barriers.
  • Consider translating your web pages and information booklets into languages commonly used by your community.
  • Get your staff who have the ability to speak other languages to get medical interpreter training and certification. Your healthcare staff are on the customer-facing side of the business. Therefore, it is inevitable that they will be the ones to directly communicate with the patients and they must be able to overcome the language barrier.
  • Use care when providing interpreter services. Just because a member of health care staff knows how to speak the same language, it does not mean that associated risk factors are not present with it. Make sure you follow the correct guidelines on using your healthcare staff to communicate with patients using the same language as they do. It is also crucial that these language skills are expertly evaluated and assessed. Otherwise, it could lead to more language barriers in health care, or worse, misinformation.
  • Make sure all interpreter services are properly documented. You need the documentation to showcase that the staff has exerted all efforts to adhere to organisational policy and ensure that your decisions were within the legal capacity of every situation or staff.
  • Where appropriate, prioritise the hiring of staff that can speak various languages. It requires an analysis of your patient population so you can take this into account when hiring staff. It’s a simple change to your approach but can significantly impact patient care and health outcomes.
  • There are three critical areas of patient contact when professional interpreter services are essential: 1) admission, 2) patient teaching, and 3) discharge. Your ability to facilitate interpreters or address language barriers at any of these stages will spell higher rates of success.

Role of a Medical Interpreter to Overcome Language Barriers

Medical interpreters are professionals that offer language assistance services to patients in various medical facilities, such as hospitals, clinics, diagnostic centers, etc. These medical interpreters play a crucial role in improving patient health outcomes as they enable patients and providers to communicate effectively.

Aside from their language skills, they also possess technical knowledge and good listening skills. Another important aspect of medical interpretation is that they must also be knowledgeable of medical terminology.

Medical interpreter services fall under any of the following categories:

  • On-Site Interpreting: The medical interpreter is physically present with the patient to offer language services by taking the conversation into context.
  • Over-the-Phone Interpreting: If there is no on-site medical interpreter, the language services are provided over the phone. This method offers a slight delay in access to language assistance.
  • Video/Remote Interpreting: This method is another alternative to on-site interpreting. It requires the use of a high-quality camera and microphone to facilitate effective communication with the patient.

Language Assistance and Healthcare Compliance

Healthcare professional high-fiving young girl Miscommunication due to language barriers is not a new issue. However, it does not mean that you have to accept it as it is, especially when it involves patient safety and access to health services (or a lack of them). There are laws and regulations that are developed across the world to ensure health equity for all patients, even those whose primary language is not English.

The US Civil Rights Act is one of the best examples of compliance laws regarding medical language and healthcare access. This regulation states that patients should not be discriminated against on the basis of their national origin. The Health and Human Services department protects their civil rights by giving them access to a qualified healthcare professional, which is part of a larger effort to improve health equity.

Therefore, it is the social duty and ethical responsibility of a healthcare organisation to ensure compliance with existing laws that apply to your service area and to provide culturally competent care.

Conclusion & Recommendations

It is challenging for healthcare professionals to connect with patients on a personal level – a crucial component of healthcare delivery – if language barriers exist. However, overcoming language barriers is a multifaceted process. It involves numerous strategies rather than a one-way approach.

To succeed in addressing language barriers in healthcare involves the recommendations above and other specialised solutions to match your unique healthcare service requirements. However, it is important to acknowledge that these issues exist so that you can design solutions that bridge the gap, avoid health disparities, and improve patient engagement.

My Language Connection is an accredited translation agency specialising in expert language services for the medical and life sciences sector.

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