Voices of healing: Bridging linguistic gaps in patient care

Just as communication is key to safe skydiving, solving language barriers with medical interpreters is crucial to ensure superior healthcare delivery.

The importance of having a medical interpreter who speaks the patient's language is a critical component of providing optimal patient care and ensuring a positive overall patient experience.

Just imagine if you were learning to skydive, but your instructor spoke a different language, or you were deaf or hard of hearing. In such a situation, where there is no room for error, you would certainly want clear instructions provided in a language you understand.

The same principle applies to healthcare services. When dealing with a severe illness or medical condition, it is essential to have your diagnosis fully explained in a language you comprehend, along with detailed instructions on how to follow the prescribed treatment for your full and safe recovery. This is where medical interpreters play a vital role.

Rising need for language options

According to the latest census data, almost 26 million people in the U.S. speak English “less than very well.” That is around 8.2 percent of the population. For these millions of individuals, visiting a healthcare provider without access to a professional medical interpreter is like receiving skydiving instructions in a foreign language. 

In some states, patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) can even make up nearly 20 percent of the entire patient population. Unfortunately, many healthcare providers still rely on informal methods to provide interpreter services. They may task a staff member or a patient's family member with interpreting and answering questions about complex diagnoses or procedures. Relying on family, friends or a person that is not medically qualified to interpret – including hospital staff – is not a great idea because this is not compliant and is a violation of a patient’s civil rights. However, this approach poses significant risks, because important details can be lost or misunderstood, potentially leading to hazardous consequences for the patient.

One recent study found that 49.1 percent of LEP patients have experienced physical harm because of communication errors as compared to 29.5 percent of English-speaking patients. In addition, family members are not impartial and may soften or omit information so they don’t offend or embarrass their family members. There also could be cultural rules and family dynamics that affect accurate interpretation – not to mention the person may not have the medical knowledge to interpret accurately.

Multiple benefits

There are several benefits of having a highly qualified medical interpreter and this lies in their specialized knowledge and expertise in navigating the intricacies of healthcare settings. While interpreters are valuable in facilitating communication between individuals who speak different languages, medical interpreters possess a unique set of skills that make them indispensable in medical contexts.

Accurate and context-specific communication. Medical interpreters are familiar with medical terminology, procedures and jargon. They possess a deep understanding of both the source and target languages, ensuring accurate and precise interpretation of complex medical information. Their knowledge enables them to convey crucial details, nuances and medical concepts accurately, reducing the risk of miscommunication and potential medical errors. Being familiar with medical language also can shorten session lengths with patients because qualified medical interpreters are not looking up words to translate and taking up valuable patient time. In addition, according to an article from Physician’s Weekly, qualified medical interpreters with 100 hours or more of training make two-thirds fewer errors than those with less training.

Cultural sensitivity. Medical interpreters are trained to be culturally sensitive and aware. They understand the cultural nuances, beliefs and practices that may impact a patient's perception of healthcare. By bridging cultural gaps, medical interpreters can help healthcare professionals navigate sensitive topics, religious or cultural considerations, and provide more patient-centered care. Take, for example, the lawsuit that resulted in a $71 million settlement. Not being culturally aware resulted in a bilingual doctor (fluent, but not culturally aware) misinterpreting the word “intoxicado,” creating a misdiagnosis for the patient and leading to an incorrect treatment plan.  (The word “intoxicado” can mean a stomachache or food poisoning, not just intoxication).

Privacy and confidentiality. Medical interpreters adhere to strict codes of ethics and confidentiality. They understand the importance of maintaining patient privacy and are well-versed in the confidentiality requirements that relate to healthcare settings. Their presence ensures that sensitive medical information remains confidential, providing a secure environment for patients to express their concerns. The goal is to provide patients with full communicative autonomy in each healthcare interaction, and this is not going to happen if a friend or family member is interpreting.

Enhanced patient understanding and engagement. With a medical interpreter present, patients can better comprehend and engage with healthcare providers. By having access to vital medical information and clear instructions, patients can actively participate in their treatment plans, ask questions, and make informed decisions about their health. This can positively affect the healthcare organization by improving outcomes, reducing length of stay or by reducing readmissions within 30 days – often caused by the patient not adhering to a doctor’s recommendations.

Improved patient safety and quality of care. Effective communication between healthcare providers and patients is fundamental for accurate diagnosis, appropriate treatment and patient safety. The presence of a medical interpreter minimizes the risk of misunderstandings, misdiagnoses and inappropriate treatment choices. Ultimately, this leads to improved patient safety and enhances the overall quality of healthcare.

While interpreters play a crucial role in facilitating communication across languages, medical interpreters offer a unique set of skills and expertise that specifically cater to the complex and sensitive nature of healthcare environments. Their knowledge of medical terminology, cultural sensitivity, commitment to privacy, and ability to ensure accurate and clear communication make them indispensable for effective healthcare delivery.

The valuable role medical interpreters play should not only be utilized to increase patient satisfaction, but it also should be normalized as best practice for improved engagement with patients that garners trust, respect and the feeling of being valued by their healthcare provider. In a diverse society where language and cultural barriers are prevalent, the presence of medical interpreters is indispensable in delivering equitable and patient-centered care.

Jacobia Solomon is president of language services for AMN Healthcare.

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