Need for Language Services in Healthcare Unveiled by Joint Commission
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Joint Commission Unveils Need for Language Services in Healthcare

By David Fetterolf, Stratus Video President

Effective patient-provider communication is challenged by the presence of linguistic and cultural differences. According to the Joint Commission, a U.S. based nonprofit that accredits more than 21,000 health care programs and organizations across the country, the leading causes of adverse events for Limited English Proficient (LEP) patients include:

  • A lack of meaningful communication &
  • A lack of qualified medical interpreters.


All facilities receiving federal funding and their affiliates are obligated to provide adequate language access services to their patients. Some hospitals are accustomed to using ad-hoc interpreters, especially for less common languages, due to a lack of resources. The Joint Commission is challenging these common, yet ineffective practices and is putting pressure on hospitals to use qualified interpreters. The use of qualified interpreters has been shown to increase both patient safety and patient satisfaction among the LEP patient population. In response, hospital administrators are looking for high quality cost-effective solutions.

Studies conducted by the Joint Commission surrounding the LEP patient population found the following:

  • A greater percentage of LEP patient adverse events involved physical harm when compared to patients who speak English &
  • The LEP patient adverse events were more likely due to communication errors when compared to the adverse events that occurred to English speaking patients.


Miscommunication is correlated with nearly 60% of serious adverse events reported to the Joint Commission. LEP patients are more likely to experience these adverse events due to language barriers. Poor understanding of medication management is particularly dangerous.

When passing healthcare information from one care giver to the next, the risk for communication errors further increases. With LEP families, the need for language services often extends to care takers as well. Miscommunication at the time of patient transfer is particularly dangerous in that it can result in delays in treatment, treatment error and/or longer length of stay. In fact, the Joint Commission considers miscommunication to be a contributing factor in nearly 80% of medical errors between caregivers at the time of patient transfer.

The Joint Commission has identified the “triple threat” to effective health communication as:

  1. low health literacy,
  2. cultural barriers &
  3. limited English proficiency.


The risk for medical errors significantly increases when LEP patients are not provided access to a qualified medical interpreter. To ensure a higher level of patient safety and eliminate disparities in care resulting from ineffective communication, the Joint Commission, among other organizations, encourages hospitals to invest in high quality language services for the LEP patient population.


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