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Why Medical Practices Must Communicate To Patients In Their Native Language


Accessing healthcare in the United States is no easy feat for non-English speaking families. The healthcare system, as it is currently designed, not only requires you to have sufficient health insurance coverage but also English language proficiency. And not just everyday language, but an understanding of preventative care, medical terms, diagnoses, and how to take prescription medication. With the US Census Bureau reporting that over 66 million people speak a language other than English at home, up from 1.5 million in 2015, more people than ever before are in need of language assistance in healthcare settings. But are we meeting that need?

About Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and Language Barriers in Healthcare

Conflict, forced displacement, and an opportunity to seek better jobs and safety for their families bring many people to the United States. Upon arrival, however,  immigrants and refugees face challenges such as lower incomes, unstable housing, and racism, which are themselves barriers to accessing healthcare. Faced with these more immediate needs, learning English, a complex language itself is not a priority.

Limited English proficiency (LEP) is one of the largest barriers to accessing healthcare. Our healthcare system is overwhelming and complex, even more so for someone not familiar with the language. There can also be deep mistrust of healthcare providers as a result of past negative experiences in their country of origin. As a result, people who do not speak English often go untreated or do not receive proper or preventative care that would reduce emergency visits or procedures in the future

Two pieces of legislation that protect the rights of any person in need of healthcare are the Civil Rights Act and the Affordable Care Act. The Civil Rights Act, signed in 1964, “require(s) recipients of Federal financial assistance from HHS (Health and Human Services) to take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to Limited English Proficient persons.” The Affordable Care Act of 2010 includes similar phrasing intended to reduce language barriers in healthcare and help individuals and families who do not speak English to find and receive adequate healthcare. Implementing these rights, on the other hand, is a different story.

Why We Need to Improve Healthcare Access for Non-English Speakers

Trust and communication are essential for building relationships. A relationship with a potential patient begins the moment they contact you for an appointment or learn about your community health center. But if they do not receive information in their native language and the pre-appointment and health history forms are only available in English, there are little to no grounds for building a trusted relationship. Patients need to feel heard and understood before they walk through the front doors of your center and the best way to do this is by communicating with them in their own language. Without trust, many non-English speakers are not comfortable making healthcare appointments or, if they do and do not receive adequate translation services, leave perplexed and discouraged.

Study after study about limited English proficiency in healthcare patients report similar results: without translation services and care before and after appointments, non-English speakers do not receive the same health outlooks as someone who is proficient in or a native English speaker.

How Can We Reduce Language Barriers in Healthcare?

Health centers use a variety of methods to reduce language barriers. Some methods include hiring an increased number of nurses or doctors who speak patients’ native languages or community handouts written in a few, commonly spoken languages in the U.S. Translators or interpreters, whether in-person or virtual, are an effective solution but are costly and only available at the health center, not before or after appointments. 

Translation software is sometimes available during appointments and can be helpful for basic communication. However, more complex, medical terms can be difficult to translate. A majority of the software available use Google Translate, which does not always translate medical terms accurately. 

Some health centers use translation software during appointments, but the lack of 

Other practices such as using GoogleTranslate do little to encourage trust and build relationships.

Nonprofits, healthcare, and tech companies are actively working towards better solutions. One such company is MediBabble, which is an app patients can use to translate healthcare-specific language to someone’s native language. It is better than other apps and software for its accuracy, health expertise, and efficiency, but it is not available in many needed languages. 

Other, well-researched ways to best support someone with limited English proficiency include moving beyond translation to cultural competency and gaining a basic understanding of their past experiences with healthcare. 

In an ideal world, there would be a trained medical translator for each language spoken by someone seeking medical care. Taking it one step further, centers would contact and inform people about preventative healthcare available in their community in their own, native language. But those resources are expensive, and there is not enough time or interpreters available to meet each person’s distinct language needs.

How Curago Health Works to Improve Healthcare Access for Non-English Speakers

That’s where Curago Health comes into play. 

The time to make the biggest impact in building trusted relationships with people who have limited English proficiency is before they arrive at your clinic or health center. Filling out information about their health history before arriving at an office for an appointment or on a screen for telehealth should be available in your patient’s native language. With Curago, that level of personalization and accessibility is possible. Our patient engagement system allows you to begin building connections with non-English speaking patients before they arrive for an appointment using our Patient Intake Software

Not only are patients able to complete all necessary forms, check-ins, and payments, physicians and providers can use the same software to help automate their processes. There’s no bouncing around from system to system or excess phone calls for your clinic or your patients. A streamlined approach, in a patient’s own language, helps to put them at ease and build trust in you and your healthcare providers before you meet. Our platform also supports patients who may be illiterate, going an extra step to support the most vulnerable in our communities.

Language barriers should not be what prevents anyone from receiving preventative, potentially life-saving care. Healthcare centers, providers, and patient engagement organizations like Curago Health need to be both aware and actively involved in fixing a system that is not designed to support the needs of non-English speakers. How are you helping to reduce language barriers in healthcare? Learn more about the difference you can make with Curago Health today.