health literacy

Improving Health Literacy through Language Assistance

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” These words highlight one of healthcare’s most pressing challenges when it comes to health literacy – language barriers. With increasing number of limited English proficiency (LEP) patients, the need for language assistance in healthcare is increasing. This requires a greater focus on providing meaningful access to language services, such as interpreters and translation of written communication.

Why Is Health Literacy Important?

By 2050, 48 percent of the U.S. population is expected to be part of a racial or ethnic minority group. This shift in the population is propelling healthcare organizations across the country to develop strategies to address the changing communication needs of patients, in regards to language preference and level of health literacy.

To provide patient-centered, equitable care, health literacy initiatives and programs are necessary. They are also now mandated by the government. As part of the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), healthcare providers must provide translation and interpreting services for LEP individuals. This requirement was put in place because millions of Americans have difficulty communicating with their healthcare providers due to language challenges, and the consequences can negatively impact the level of care they receive. Many studies show that patients with limited English proficiency are more likely to delay obtaining medical care, miss follow-up appointment and misunderstand instructions. For example, a Spanish-speaking patient with a heart condition who reads instructions to take their blood pressure medication “once a day” may confuse the word “once” because it also means the number eleven (11) in Spanish. Taking 11 of these pills in one day could cause disastrous results. In other words, the consequences of a language barrier can sometimes be life-threatening.

“Misinterpretation or simply not understanding discharge instructions, medication labels and other forms of communication puts this segment of patients at increased risk for drug complications, readmissions, extended hospital stays, and poorer outcomes,” says Elizabeth McCulloch, PhD, director of Health Literacy and Cultural and Linguistic Competency for Northwell Health. “It’s a key focus for Northwell Health to provide the level of assistance necessary to ensure consistent, quality care and patient safety.”

A Comprehensive Approach

Overcoming communication challenges in healthcare has not always been effective. In many cases, family members of LEP patients were used as interpreters. However, when you consider that only 12 percent of U.S. adults, including those who are native English-speakers, are considered to have proficient health literacy, it’s easy to understand that bilingual healthcare providers and interpreters are necessary.

At Northwell Health, a comprehensive approach to language assistance has been developed to set standards of care for LEP patients to ensure effective communication. This includes offering telephonic interpretation services in over 250 different languages and video remote interpretation services for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Katz Institute for Women’s Health is here to answer your questions about language assistance and health literacy. Call the Katz Institute for Women’s Health Resource Center at 855-850-5494 to speak to a women’s health specialist.