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It’s all Greek to me: Accommodating multiple languages

There are more than 20 million people in the United States who speak limited or no English, and this number is increasing daily. Differences in languages can cause minor inconveniences or misunderstandings in many aspects of life. When it comes to healthcare, however, a language barrier can be the difference between life and death.Researchers in the Center for Health Policy Research in the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine have found that language barriers between patients and healthcare providers result in longer hospital stays, more medical errors and lower patient satisfaction.

Many major hospital systems employ around-the-clock translation services as a means to cope with language barriers that could adversely affect a patient’s diagnosis, prognosis and treatment or care. In fact, some states even require this accommodation by law … but is it enough?

According to the same research, patients’ ratings of their doctors and the quality of interpersonal care indicated that having an interpreter does not serve as a substitute for shared language. Doctors and nurses who speak the language of patients greatly improve the quality care in the eyes of non-English patients. Other considerations are accommodations made throughout all levels of care, not just in emergency settings.

Consider implementing these ideas in your healthcare organization today in order to communicate most effectively with all patients and to provide a sense of welcome and comfort to those in often sensitive situations:

  • Connect the dots. If your healthcare organization works with speakers of a certain language on a very regular basis, consider alleviating common questions and nervousness among patients by offering bilingual signage, reading materials and informational brochures.
  • Don’t wait. Be proactive in letting patients know about any multilingual resources available to them. Clip pamphlets or booklets of resource lists and contact information to these Hand Sanitizers and give to patients as a memorable way to spread the word. Hand out pens with contact information for assistance with multilingual information.
  • Remember the kids. Find plenty of bilingual books to stock waiting areas and make sure the children’s floors have foreign language films or cartoons to keep them entertained. Barriers can be greater with young, non-English speaking children that are shy or have difficulties expressing themselves in their own language, let alone a new one. Use visual cues, like crayons and paper or Mood Cubes, to further assist in communication.
  • Involve staff. Foster awareness of the need for multilingual resources and understanding among staff. Consider hosting regular staff seminars that address what actions should be taken when a new patient who does not speak English requires care and how to communicate through cultural differences. Also consider teaching staff basic phrases in common languages. Reward staff members for participation with popular items at any price point, like a branded Fleece Vest, Chocolate Hearts Tin or fun USB Micro People.

Language barriers are real and it means better care on behalf of your organization by accommodating all patients and working to make them feel comfortable.

ALA | Serving Non-English Speakers in U.S. Public Libraries.American Library Association. Web. 14 May 2010.

Language Barriers Adversely Impact Health-care Quality.Science Daily: News & Articles in Science, Health, Environment & Technology. Web. 14 May



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