Breaking The Language Barrier In Health Care: What Every Medical Care Provider Needs To Know

Posted on: 17 October 2017

According to statistical data from the Migration Policy Institute, 64.7 million people in the United States spoke their native non-English language in the home in 2015, and 40% of them were considered limited in English proficiency. While it's fairly easy for these groups to navigate the world they live in, such as to buy groceries and to drive a car, there is one aspect that can cause their limited English proficiency to become a matter of life or death: medical care. 

If you are a medical care provider, it's important for you to understand the complexities of obtaining informed consent from those who have limited English proficiency. Here's what you need to know. 

Understanding the Scope of Limited English Proficiency

Many states require physicians and other medical care practitioners to obtain informed consent from patients prior to providing care, particularly in regards to treatments, chemotherapy, and surgeries. Informed consent involves written documentation, which can be difficult due to 40% of 64.7 million people—nearly 26 million people—not understanding English well enough to read and sign the documents. To compound this problem, the Census Bureau reported at least 350 languages were spoken in homes in the United States from 2009 to 2013. 

Breaking Language Barriers 

With 350 different languages being spoken and 40% having limited English proficiency, communicating effectively with your patients so they understand everything they need to know about their health and the care you give them can be challenging. Language barriers can also make it difficult for you to remain complaint in regards to obtaining informed consent from your patients. 

  • Informed consent translation services. Fortunately, there are informed consent translation services available, many of which provide translations in nearly every language spoken. These services will translate informed consent documents so they are easy for your limited English proficiency patients to read. It would behoove you to have the informed consent documents that are most frequently used in your facility translated into at least the most common languages spoken in homes in your area. To find this information, contact your nearest Census Bureau office. Alternatively, use the interactive language mapper tool on their website. 
  • Medical interpreter. At times, it may be necessary for you to hire a person-to-person interpreter, such as when you feel a patient will not be able to understand surgical after-care instructions or when you simply cannot understand what your patients are trying to tell you. Be aware that sometimes patients' family members will try to interpret for their loved ones but allowing this could cause misunderstandings which, unfortunately, could only add more problems for the patient and the care you provide to them. Try to explain to the family members that you need to use a professional interpreter who understands medical terminology. 

Going Above and Beyond 

If you frequently see patients who do not speak English, it would benefit you learn anatomical terms and key phrases in the languages that you deal with the most. This will help you to get somewhat of an understanding about what your patients are experiencing and why they are seeking medical care. Alternatively or additionally, keep illustrations and charts of anatomical features, common ailments, and procedures as a visual explanation for your patients. 

Another thing you can do is to collaborate with the local translators and interpreters to develop a streamlined approach to identifying the languages most predominately spoken in your area. Doing this will provide you, the translation service, and interpreters with a better understanding of the needs of the limited English proficiency population in your area as well as which languages to focus on to translate your informed consent documents. 


Learning About Language and Culture

Hey everyone, I am Tanya. Welcome to my site about linguistics. When I was attending college, I decided to focus on linguistics to use up my elective credits. Studying language opened my eyes to the different ways people communicate with each other. I also had the opportunity to learn about the way language developed in each culture. I will use this site to discuss this subject in immense detail to help other people understand more about this interesting topic. I hope you will visit my site on a daily basis to learn new things about language and culture. Thank you!

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