Physician Practices: 4 Considerations for Improving Language Access

By David Fetterolf, Stratus Video President

The number of foreign-born people living in the United States grew last year to its highest number in over a century, rising to over 44.5 million people, according to the latest Census Bureau data. In addition, more than 11 million Americans have difficulty hearing or are facing age-related hearing loss and one million of these individuals are Deaf.

Addressing the communication needs of these diverse patient populations while still delivering safe, high quality patient care, is becoming an increasing challenge for physician practices nationwide. To provide the best possible support for limited English proficient (LEP), Deaf and hard of hearing patients, we recommend that physician practices consider the following factors when implementing a language access program:

1) Use Medically Qualified Interpreters. When an LEP, Deaf or hard of hearing patient has a medical appointment, providers are legally obligated to make arrangements for a medically qualified interpreter. It’s not uncommon for health care providers to use an untrained bilingual employee or a family member of a patient who speaks the patient’s language, however, in addition to an increased liability for the physician practice and potential HIPAA violations, this can also create a challenge in accurately communicating important information to patients.

Recent studies have shown that using trained, medically qualified interpreters increases patient and provider satisfaction, improves informed consent and decreases readmission rates. In addition, using ad hoc, unqualified interpreters, doubles interpretation errors, including misdiagnosis and unnecessary testing and procedures than when medically qualified interpreters are used. For physicians, it is essential that patients clearly understand their condition, treatment plan and medication needs.

2) Evaluate Risk of Noncompliance and Decrease in Patient Satisfaction. Without the ability to provide timely access to high-quality language services, physician practices may be in danger of legal and regulatory consequences stemming from noncompliance with federal and state laws, including Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And according to the journal of the American Telemedicine Association, “language barriers result in poor understanding of diagnosis, treatment, and medication instructions; poor understanding of and compliance with recommendations for treatment and follow-up; a significantly greater likelihood of a serious medical event; and lower patient satisfaction.”

3) Weigh the Options. If an onsite interpreter must be called every time there is a patient-provider language barrier, it can be costly to providers. Onsite interpreters require payment, regardless of whether or not a patient appears for an appointment, which could mean a minimum of two hours of work plus travel time even when an appointment is delayed or cancelled.

Over-the-Phone interpretation is another option, though studies indicate between 55-93 percent of all communication is non-verbal. Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted several studies on nonverbal communication, and through his research, he discovered that just 7 percent of any message is conveyed through words, 38 percent through certain vocal elements and 55 percent through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc.).

Video Remote Interpretation (VRI) is another option that combines the benefits of face-to-face interpretation with the on-demand nature of Over-the-Phone Interpretation (OPI). VRI provides instant, mobile and cost-effective access to interpreters.

4) Meet Patient Needs with VRI. Many physician practices are implementing VRI to provide both verbal and non-verbal means of communication at a fraction of the cost of on-site interpretation. VRI is a viable alternative to onsite and Over-the-Phone interpreting that can improve clinical effectiveness, enhance the patient experience and drive operating efficiencies. Learn more about how Stratus Video can support your interpreting needs and maximize patient satisfaction and outcomes: https://www.stratusvideo.com/stratus-video/.

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