The Impact of Language Barriers in the Health Care System
In a country as linguistically diverse as the United States, the language barrier poses significant challenges in healthcare delivery, impacting both patients and healthcare providers. The issue of language barriers in healthcare has raised concerns about the quality of care, patient satisfaction, and overall health outcomes for non-English speaking populations. A press conference organized by Ethnic Media Services brought together several experts, ranging from activists to government officials, to address these issues in detail and propose potential solutions.
The conference commenced with a presentation by Dr. Latha Palaniappan, a medicine professor at Stanford University. Palaniappan presented existing evidence on the impact of language discordant care, where a patient and a provider don’t share proficiency in a common language. She argued that existing language barriers lead to delays in reporting symptoms, limiting the patient’s ability to receive timely care, and resulting in higher rates of undiagnosed conditions. “The care continuum includes communicating information. When the patient does not understand what the clinician is saying that continuum is broken, and the quality of care is not as high as it can be,” Dr. Palaniappan added.
Later in the event, Dr. Ingrid Hall, an epidemiologist in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control’s Epidemiology of the CDC, further emphasized this claim by presenting new research that suggested language barriers might impact cancer diagnosis. “Hispanic adults are less likely to receive timely cancer screenings, with even lower screening prevalence reported among recent immigrants, those less acculturated, or showing less adaptation,” she stated.
The language barriers not only impact diagnosis but also affect other aspects of the patient’s ability to navigate the healthcare system. “Those who self-report a low English proficiency report receiving fewer preventative services or accessing healthcare,” Dr. Hall added. Moreover, according to Dr. Palaniappan, “New therapies via clinical research are not accessible due to a lack of readily available translation services for trials.”
Both clinicians emphasized the need for increased translation of medical documents and the availability of interpreters who can navigate medical terminology. Dr. Palaniappan pointed out that while doctors may be proficient in another language at a conversational level, they may struggle to provide the necessary support when referring to technical terms or specific medical processes in another language. Additionally, Dr. Elena Rios, President & CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, raised concerns about the lack of available translation services leading to patient’s children serving as interpreters, which could potentially violate patient privacy rights.
Dr. Ríos also argued that an important part of the solution lies in diversifying the field of medicine as a whole. “We need to create a pipeline of culturally sensitive healthcare providers. Yet at this point, less than 6% of our healthcare force are people of color,” she highlighted. Dr. Rios emphasized the work that her organization and others are doing to achieve this through scholarship and mentorship programs. This, along with expanded translation services, will make a significant difference in ensuring that everyone, irrespective of the language they speak, can access the healthcare they need.