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The Need for Language Services in Healthcare
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, very few were left unaffected. The nightly news showed images of full hospitals, shut down storefronts, and increasing unemployment numbers. Without question, this pandemic has pushed our healthcare system to the brink. It also shined a harsh light on where the system falls short and who is getting left behind.
How COVID-19 Impacts Minority Populations
What made this pandemic especially concerning was the initial scramble to learn more information. In the early days, several facts about the virus were unclear. As we learned more, accurate communication became paramount to keeping people safe. But as more information became available, a new issue arose. How do we share this vital information with our minority population who is already known to be marginalized when it comes to healthcare? Equally as troubling, how do we communicate these potentially life-saving updates to those who do not speak English?
Minority Populations are at a Disadvantage
While the findings might have been surprising to some, “disparities in health and health care for people of color and underserved groups are longstanding challenges.”1 Nearly 30% of low-income families are made up of Black or Hispanic individuals. Oftentimes, these communities are living in close quarters and working high-risk jobs that cannot be done remotely. Working and living in these conditions places a significant percentage of our population at a much higher risk of contracting COVID-19. And, for the limited-English proficient (LEP) population who contract the virus, the health care system they rely on for help still struggles to overcome the language barrier.
The Language Gap Among Healthcare Workers and Patients
As we saw on the news, the pandemic quickly sent office workers home to work remotely for the foreseeable future. However, those who work in hospitals and other healthcare facilities do not have this luxury. For these essential workers, staying employed often means working amongst uncertain and unsafe working conditions.
The same can be said for hospital patients who are either diagnosed with COVID-19 or are afflicted with another medical condition. These individuals require access to the type of care that can only be administered in a hospital. As we saw at hospitals such as Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, these health risks run much deeper for those staff and patients who do not speak English.
The Brigham and Women’s Hospital Study
As the pandemic ramped up in early March, the incident command center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston began to detect a disturbing trend. The virus “appeared to be killing more black and brown patients than whites.”2 The culprit behind this disturbing discovery was a sizable language gap. Patients whose primary language was not English had a 35% greater chance of death.
This is due to the inability to relay essential information both about preventive care and how to deal with the virus once contracted. In this instance, Brigham hospital quickly realized they lacked sufficient language services such as translated materials and foreign language interpreters. This communication roadblock proved to be a key driver behind higher hospitalization rates for patients in minority communities.
The Future of Language Services in Healthcare
While Brigham Hospital was able to get its issues under control, the problem still persists. How do we ensure that our healthcare system works for everyone, regardless of language or background? The need for language and translation services spans the entire patient process. Yes, it starts by communicating vital information to keep you healthy, but it must also be integrated into every step the patient takes.
Regardless of how much translated information you provide, individuals will still get sick and need to seek medical attention. In addition, due to COVID-19 and the push to limit face-to-face interaction, patients are now greeted by a check-in kiosk upon arrival. Providing instructions in their native language can be the difference between patients getting or not getting the care and attention they deserve.
Receiving a medical diagnosis or instructions from a doctor can be complicated even when you speak the same language. However, it can be nearly impossible when you don’t. Having interpreters available is vital for several reasons:
- It ensures that the doctor’s information is being relayed correctly.
- It allows the patient to ask any clarifying questions before discharge.
- It increases the likelihood that the patient will take the proper precautions moving forward to minimize their risk of getting themselves or someone else ill.
An often overlooked part of the patient journey is their discharge papers upon appointment completion. These papers are vital in telling patients about their current health status, future treatments, and anything else they need to know to stay healthy and safe. All healthcare providers need to reexamine their discharge processes to ensure everyone is being served properly.
Where Do Language Service Providers Fit In?
While it is on healthcare providers to implement these new solutions, it is up to language services providers (LSPs) specializing in healthcare to provide them. It is important to remember how busy hospitals and doctors’ offices are on a regular basis, let alone during a pandemic. They may agree these services and processes are needed but are most likely unable to spend the time and resources to understand exactly what they need and where to get it from.
As an LSP, this is your opportunity to position yourself as a thought leader in this area. It is critically important that you spend the time to educate these facilities on the types of solutions you offer and the specific pain points your services solve. By educating the healthcare community on these topics, you are positioning your brand as an expert while developing a level of trust between you and the facility you are aiming to help. This type of relationship between a brand and its prospects often leads to a long-lasting partnership.
How Well Are You Marketing Your Services?
Regardless of where the COVID-19 pandemic takes us, the need for language services in healthcare will remain. Individuals of all backgrounds deserve quality care, regardless of the language they speak. While hospitals and offices are beginning to address these issues, they will continue to struggle to identify and implement the proper solutions. It will be up to LSPs to take the lead in solving this critical healthcare issue.
About GIM Content Management
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1 Nambi Ndugga Follow @nambinjn on Twitter and Samantha Artiga Follow @SArtiga2 on Twitter Published: May 11, 2021. “Disparities in Health and Health Care: 5 Key Questions and Answers.” KFF, 12 May 2021, www.kff.org/racial-equity-and-health-policy/issue-brief/disparities-in-health-and-health-care-5-key-question-and-answers/.
2 Bebinger, Martha. “The Pandemic Imperiled Non-English Speakers in a Hospital.” NPR, NPR, 23 Apr. 2021, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/04/23/989928262/the-pandemic-imperiled-non-english-speakers-in-a-hospital.
“Risk for COVID-19 Infection, Hospitalization, and Death by Race/Ethnicity.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/investigations-discovery/hospitalization-death-by-race-ethnicity.html.