How Qualified Interpreters Help to Achieve Health Equity

By Kathryn Jackson, Vice President of Language Operations

When it comes to patient treatment, no two patients are created equal. Health equity refers to the study and practice of equalizing patients across all controllable aspects of healthcare. That means that while patients may not be able to receive equal care based on factors that are beyond human influence (like genetic disorders, predispositions to certain conditions, and drug allergies), when it comes to things that healthcare providers can control, like service offerings and effective communication, equal treatment is not only an expectation, but an obligation.

Historically, limited English proficiency (LEP) patients have not received equal treatment across controllable factors, like communication. Studies have shown that without the use of medically qualified interpreters, LEP patients experience longer length of in-hospital stays, and higher readmission rates than is necessary. Additionally, LEP patients are more likely to have low health literacy than their English-speaking counterparts. So even if a healthcare provider is using an interpreter to communicate something, the message may not be getting through if he or she does not account for gaps in understanding due to cultural differences or linguistic factors. Therefore, effective communication and health equity are not achieved. A provider will benefit from working with their interpreter to help identify these gaps in understanding and work together to bridge that gap.

So how can healthcare institutions level the playing field? They can start by always utilizing medically qualified interpreters. Qualified interpreters are professionals. Not only are they bilingual, but they have been through extensive language and medical terminology training, undergo regular quality checks and are required to engage in continuing education. Ad hoc interpreters are not professionals and are often turned to out of desperation or convenience. An ad hoc interpreter may be an untrained hospital staff member, a patient’s friend or family member, or anyone else with limited language and interpreting skills. Also, the use of medically qualified interpreters has been shown to reduce the likelihood of medical errors.

Whether an interpreter is used over-the-phone, through video, or onsite, it is crucial that during every encounter a qualified medical interpreter is used to communicate with every limited English proficient patient. Only that way can a healthcare institution truly achieve health equity between English-speaking and LEP patients.

To learn more about Health Equity, visit the Joint Commission Health Equity Portal.

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