Breaking Down Language Barriers in Healthcare

Working as a pediatric resident in Texas has given me the unique opportunity of serving a diverse patient population. For example, my continuity clinic has a substantial number of patients who only speak Spanish. Unfortunately, I do not speak Spanish, which is not ideal for my patients. As a doctor, I strive to provide the best medical care. So I’ve really reflected upon my experiences with my Spanish speaking population, and how to best navigate the language barrier. Since it’s not feasible to make all practicing physicians learn additional languages, I highly advocate for the next best thing, hiring in-person interpreter services.

Numerous studies have shown that language barriers negatively impact healthcare. A study in New York analyzed an urban, underserved Hispanic population.1 One group could speak English, while the other group could only speak Spanish. The study concluded that English speakers reported a higher satisfaction rate with their healthcare experiences; they were more likely to have medication side effects explained to them, which impacted their compliance. Another study analyzed racial and ethnic differences in access to healthcare.2 The study concluded that the marked disadvantage in Hispanic children’s access to care may be related to a language issue. Primary care is especially important for children because they require a plethora of immunizations and need to be monitored for developmental milestones.

At my clinic, I’ve been in experiences where the phone interpreter service unintentionally worsened the communication issues. The sub-optimal audio quality was exacerbated by the masks that we were wearing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes when the interpreter said something, my patients would point at the phone and shake their heads, implying that the interpreter was not interpreting correctly. Other times, even with my limited Spanish knowledge, I realized that the interpreter was miscommunicating information to my patients. When my clinic hired someone to work onsite as our interpreter, the clinic ran so much smoother. The patients felt much more at ease with an in-person interpreter, and I could see them letting their guard down.

A study published by the American Journal of Public Health revealed that providing interpreter services is a financially viable way of enhancing healthcare delivery to people with limited English proficiency.3 The study showed that patients who utilized the interpreter services had significant increases in physician visits and prescription drugs, which suggests that the moderate cost of interpreter services led to the huge benefit of enhancing access to primary and preventive care. People are more inclined to seek healthcare when they understand their health condition, what treatment they need, medication side-effects, and the importance of medication compliance despite the side effects. As physicians, it’s important to break down barriers to healthcare access, and hiring in-person interpreters is one way to do so.

Brina Bui, MD

References

1. David RA, Rhee M. The impact of language as a barrier to effective health care in an underserved urban Hispanic community. The Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine, New York. 1998 Oct-Nov;65(5-6):393-397.

2. Weinick RM, Krauss NA. Racial/ethnic differences in children’s access to care. Am J Public Health. 2000;90(11):1771-1774.

3. Jacobs EA, Shepard DS, Suaya JA, et al. Overcoming Language Barriers in Health Care: Costs and Benefits of Interpreter Services. American Journal of Public Health. 2004;94, 866_869.

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