Healthcare News & Insights

Stop language barriers: 4 keys to a successful interpreter program

87735004Overcoming language barriers when treating patients can be tough. And hospitals should be using interpreters for help. But this doesn’t always happen – and it can be detrimental to patients’ health.

Patients whose first language is something other than English have higher chances of suffering adverse events during their hospital stay, according to a recent article in Modern Healthcare.

Why lack of interpreters hurts

There are more resources at hospitals’ disposal than ever before when it comes to finding interpreters. Besides having interpreters on site, hospitals can hire independent contractors or use interpretation services via the Internet, video or phone.

But for whatever reason — whether it’s costs, a limited number of qualified people, or lack of knowledge about the languages spoken by people in their patient mix — interpretation services are often lacking in hospitals.

Sometimes hospitals end up relying on family members who speak English, or clinical staffers with a working knowledge of the language, to act as makeshift interpreters.

However, if the person isn’t specifically trained as a medical interpreter, the consequences can be dire. A person who doesn’t understand specific medical terminology can’t translate it effectively, so the patient may not be getting the most accurate info.

And this causes problems for patients and hospitals. In fact, for one hospital in Los Angeles, patients who spoke a different language were much more likely to be readmitted within 30 days, according to the results of a recent study published in the American Journal of Managed Care.

Even worse, patients have died in some cases where instructions about their treatment and care weren’t given in their first language.

In one case described in the Modern Healthcare piece, a patient who only spoke Spanish was admitted to a Maryland hospital. He had abdominal pain and shortness of breath, and he was vomiting. The man spent two days in the hospital, undergoing a variety of tests and treatments, but he ultimately succumbed to his illness.

Throughout his hospital stay, no one told him anything in Spanish about his care plan or treatment until 90 minutes before he died.

Lessening risks

Hospitals can reduce the likelihood they’ll face a similar situation by making the effort to ensure that all patients have a clear understanding of their conditions and treatment, no matter what language they speak.

There are several steps hospitals can take to bolster their current interpreter program and provide better care for patients from all backgrounds. Here are four, per the Modern Healthcare article:

  1. Evaluate the skills required. Not every person who’s familiar with a language can act as an interpreter in a medical setting. Besides problems with effectively translating medical terminology, there also may be an issue with the potential interpreter’s general communication style. Whoever you choose as an interpreter should be well-versed in all aspects of relaying info to patients, including the ability to pick up on cultural subtleties and non-verbal cues.
  2. Offer incentives/training to qualified staffers. You may already have staff members who are bilingual and meet the requirements to interpret medical info. Provide rewards to them to encourage this knowledge – and promote an environment where the skill is valued. Bonus: This type of environment will not only boost retention for current staffers, it may also draw in additional bilingual clinicians looking to work for your hospital.
  3. Assess patients’ health literacy ASAP. It’s tough enough to determine a patient’s health literacy if he or she speaks English. Overcoming a language barrier adds more challenges. But just as it’s crucial to explain health info to patients on their basic health literacy level in English, it’s even more crucial to do so in other languages. Make sure your interpreters have a basic understanding of how they can determine patients’ health literacy in their first language – and that interpreters are able to tailor their message accordingly.
  4. Target risky situations. Be sure you have interpreters for multiple languages ready to translate for patients in situations where the potential for harm is high if info isn’t clearly understood. This includes visits to the emergency department, discussions of the patient’s current and new medications, and the discharge process once a hospital stay ends.


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