How Language Access Affects Social Determinants of Health

By Kristin Quinlan, CEO, Certified Languages International
LinkedIn: Kristin Quinlan
LinkedIn: Certified Languages International

Across the healthcare industry and public health sector, there is a growing recognition that language access significantly impacts social determinants of health (SDOH)—the conditions in which people are born, live, and work that shape health outcomes.

With 1 in 5 people in the U.S. speaking a language other than English at home, that impact has become too large to ignore. New research has shown that patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) face barriers to healthcare service access, experience lower-quality care, and suffer worse health outcomes. According to research published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, they’re less likely to have had a preventive care visit in the past year or to have a regular place to go to when they are sick.

By addressing language-related barriers, healthcare organizations can improve access to medical services, promote health literacy and equity, facilitate culturally competent care, and improve outcomes.

How Organizations Can Help Reduce Health Disparities and Promote Health Equity for Linguistically Diverse Populations

Improving health outcomes for patients who speak a language other than English requires a strategic approach. A few key steps can help hospitals, healthcare providers, and physicians enhance communication and deliver more effective care for their LEP patient populations:

  • Get to know your patients: Do you know the languages your patients speak? Removing language-related barriers starts with determining the languages you need to support based on your patient demographics. Next, find out how those patients want to be communicated with—do they prefer phone, social media, text, or other methods? If you’re not already collecting and documenting language and communication preference in each patient’s chart, start now.
  • Establish, implement, and provide training around a comprehensive language access plan: A living, evolving language access plan helps guide your staff and providers on how to communicate effectively with all patients, regardless of the language they speak. Solicit feedback from staff and patients about the effectiveness of your language services and identify any gaps, such as the need for bilingual employees or resources like brochures, posters, or stickers with instructions for accessing language support. It’s also essential (and now the law under Section 1557) to ensure that all staff are trained on your language policies and procedures, including how to access language services and when to use them.
  • Provide access to professional interpreters: Whenever you interact with a patient who’s not fluent in English, communicating through an interpreter is vital for ensuring equitable access and empowering all your patients to have an active role in their medical care. Working with professional healthcare interpreters can also lead to decreased health disparities for patients with LEP, fewer medical errors, improved patient comprehension, and higher patient and clinician satisfaction.
  • Consider written as well as spoken and signed communication: Translate all patient materials into the languages spoken in your community, including any diagnoses, interventions, and follow-up care instructions. Being able to fully understand how to take medication and recover from medical procedures can have a significant positive impact on health outcomes.
  • Think about the healthcare modality: Ensure that your teams recognize that LEP patients tend to have better experiences with phone consultations and in-person appointments with video or on-site interpreters compared to telehealth visits. Research has found that patients with LEP are less likely to use telehealth services and report lower satisfaction with virtual care; “worse video visit experience may be associated with challenges in integrating interpreters into telehealth visits or perceived effectiveness by both clinicians and patients.”
  • Lean on your language service partner for help: You don’t have to do this alone; your language partner can be a valuable resource in applying best practices, developing customized language access materials, and helping you support your LEP patients through their healthcare journey. Let them help you figure out the best ways to provide your patients with quick, reliable language services to make sure they can be assisted by an interpreter at every point of contact, whether that’s using on-site interpreters, remote interpreters connected via phone or video, or a combination.

Language access should never be an afterthought in healthcare. Ensuring that language services are included in every conversation and considered at every turn is a crucial step in mitigating social determinants of health. With a comprehensive approach to providing everyone with access to information about their health, at every step of their healthcare journey, in a language they can understand, healthcare organizations can significantly enhance the health outcomes of linguistically diverse populations.