Identifying Patient Language Needs – An Essential Step to Language Access in Healthcare

A significant part of patient outcome depends on communication between the patient and the provider. A review of reports from the Joint Commission identifies communication error as the most frequent root cause of events resulting in death or serious physical or psychological harm. This is particularly true for limited English proficient (LEP), Deaf and Hard of Hearing patients who use a different means to communicate other than English.

A pilot study of six U.S. Joint Commission accredited hospitals on language proficiency and adverse events in LEP patients found that “LEP patients who experienced an adverse event were more likely to be harmed, the adverse event was more frequently caused by a communication error, and the harm was more likely to be serious, compared to ES [English speaking] patients.” The study concluded that providers can better prepare for encounters with LEP patients by identifying top languages needed, collecting language data at the patient point of entry for any new or walk-in patients and documenting the language services provided for each session.

Identifying Top Languages

With a solid grasp of the patient population and their language needs, providers can better ensure meaningful understanding takes place. Providers can find the top 15 languages in their state on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights resource page. Population estimates are provided, helping facilities comply with the Section 1557 tagline requirement as well as plan for the provision of language services. 

Collecting Patient Language Data

In an ideal setting, the patient’s preferred language is documented prior to the healthcare encounter, allowing time for an onsite interpreter to be present if needed. In many healthcare situations, however, the preferred language is not known prior to the encounter. Encounters with walk-in patients, new patients and urgent care patients, requiring communication assistance, call for a quick, go-to solution. In order to ensure these patients have access to language services, providers may utilize remote interpretation services.   

Documenting Language Services Provided

By collecting patient language data, providers can better ensure that LEP patients have ready access to a qualified interpreter in the language needed at the time of the patient-provider encounter. Insight from documentation of the length of the interpretation session and the type of services provided (e.g., video remote interpretation, over-the-phone interpretation, onsite interpretation) streamlines quality control and optimization for healthcare administrators. Discover more tips to develop / optimize your language access plan in our white paper: eBook: A Guide to Staff and Contract Interpreter Management – Expert Insights from the Field

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