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Why interpreters are critical for physicians, not just their LEP patients


When patients fail to understand or follow a physician’s advice, it can lead to frustration for the physician, an increased workload due to the need to address non-adherence, or the risk of a medical error.

interpreter | © Cybrain - stock.adobe.com

© Cybrain - stock.adobe.com

The diversity of languages spoken in the U.S. is on the rise, with 1 in 5 residents now speaking a language other than English at home and more than 350 languages spoken across the country. Physicians and hospital systems can no longer afford to overlook the importance of language services for these vulnerable populations.

Patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) face significant barriers that reduce access to preventative and acute care and lead to poorer health outcomes, lowering both their satisfaction and trust. These health disparities are long-standing and pervasive.

Using qualified medical interpreters has been shown to be highly effective in decreasing readmission rates and improving LEP patient outcomes, and it’s more convenient than ever for physicians to access an interpreter remotely. But while organizations that receive federal funding are required to provide language services to patients with LEP, time limitations and budgetary constraints can lead physicians to cut corners when it comes to providing these critical services, relying instead on gestures or ad-hoc interpretation by family members.

Doing so not only creates the risk of noncompliance with federal regulations and the possibility of legal risk and liability, but also results in a disadvantage to the physician. That’s because the benefits of providing an interpreter aren’t limited to the patients—physicians reap significant benefits as well.

Why physicians need to prioritize language services

When physicians are unable to fully communicate with a patient due to language barriers, they’re often unable to provide a certain standard of care to their patients. Without a professional interpreter, they could be making decisions about medical care based on incomplete information from the patient—or even a misunderstanding of what their symptoms are.

When patients fail to understand or follow a physician’s advice, it can lead to frustration for the physician, an increased workload due to the need to address non-adherence, or the risk of a medical error. And when it comes to a patient’s health and even life, that risk is never justifiable.

How physicians can prioritize language services

A few steps can help you provide high-quality care for your patients, regardless of the language they speak:

  • Understand the patients you serve: Many healthcare entities already collect data on the languages their patients speak, but that’s just the start. Make sure you document each patient’s preferred language in their medical records, so you know before the appointment starts whether an interpreter is needed.
  • Insist upon using a qualified medical interpreter: If your patient declines an interpreter, you still have the right to request one to make sure you can accurately understand and relay medical information, meet evolving government regulations, and mitigate legal risk and liability. Verify that the interpreters available to you are professional interpreters experienced in the healthcare industry.
  • Make interpreters an integral part of the care team: Ensure that your interpreters are considered part of the care team, not just an add-on. This will help enable consistency across the patient’s healthcare journey, facilitate culturally relevant conversations, and bolster trust throughout the patient-physician relationship.
  • Understand the role—and limitations—of technology: Using an interpreter is essential, but it’s also important to understand that some modalities—whether you connect with interpreters in person, on the phone, or through video—may be better in certain scenarios. Know which modalities are available to you and choose the one that tends to work most effectively for the situation. This might vary based on the type of medical procedure, sense of urgency, a patient’s request for privacy or anonymity, and other factors.
  • Ensure that you have a strong language service partner: If you’re a physician in a large healthcare system, you probably already have access to interpreters through a language service provider (LSP). However, private medical practices may need to independently engage with an LSP to accommodate their patients with LEP. If you already have a partner, evaluate how effectively they’re able to support you; if you don’t have one, look for a partner who prioritizes high-quality interpreters in the languages your patients speak.

Removing barriers to quality care for your LEP patients

It’s imperative to maintain compliance with all relevant laws and regulations, and that includes utilizing language services to effectively communicate with your patients who have a non-English language preference. But beyond the legal imperative is a moral one—ensuring equitable healthcare for all people, regardless of the language spoken, requires that you empower your patients to be active participants in their own health journeys. That, in turn, means using qualified interpreters to remove the barriers to access and care that patients with LEP have long faced. By working together, we can create a healthcare environment where every patient’s voice is heard and their needs are met with the highest standard of care.

Kristin Quinlan joined Certified Languages International (CLI) in 1999, ascending to CEO in 2006. Under Kristin’s leadership, CLI has become not just a provider of language services, but an advocate for the greater good of comprehensive language access.

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