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Causes of language barriers in healthcare

Causes of language barriers in healthcare

In healthcare, language barriers often result from a lack of language diversity training in medical education. As a result of frequent migrations, patients in many countries speak a variety of languages, which can be challenging for practitioners. To ensure that all patients receive high-quality care, healthcare organizations and practitioners should be aware of these causes.


Common causes of language barriers in healthcare

Demographic diversity

This diversity includes a large Spanish-speaking populations, as well as speakers of Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Arabic, French, and Korean, among others. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that nearly 25 million people in the U.S. are considered Limited English Proficient (LEP), meaning they report speaking English less than "very well."


Cultural differences

Cultural differences extend beyond language and affect communication styles, health beliefs, and practices. For example, non-verbal cues and the concept of personal space vary across cultures, potentially leading to misunderstandings in healthcare settings.


Systemic reliance on English

Despite the linguistic diversity, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 67 million people speak a language other than English at home, which represents about 21.6% of the population. This can disadvantage LEP patients, who may struggle to communicate effectively with their healthcare providers. Research indicates that LEP patients are less likely to have a regular healthcare provider, receive preventive health services, or seek medical care, even in urgent situations.


Educational and training background of healthcare professionals

survey of medical schools found that while cultural competency training has been integrated into many programs, specific language training is less common. This leaves many healthcare providers ill-prepared to communicate effectively with LEP patients. 


Absence of formal language support services

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reports varying access to professional medical interpreters across healthcare settings. While federal law requires language services for LEP patients, implementation is inconsistent, affecting the quality of care and patient safety. A study found that LEP patients are less likely to understand medical situations, follow medication instructions, or be satisfied with their healthcare due to communication barriers.

See also: Overcoming language barriers in HIPAA compliant text messaging


The effects of language barriers in healthcare

Language barriers in healthcare can profoundly affect patients and healthcare providers, impacting patient safety, quality of care, and health outcomes. Here are some of the key effects:

  • Miscommunication and misunderstandings
  • Decreased patient satisfaction
  • Reduced access to healthcare services
  • Increased risk of medical errors
  • Lower quality of care
  • Patient safety concerns
  • Compromised patient-provider relationship
  • Health disparities
  • Increased healthcare costs
  • Emotional and psychological impact on patients
  • Burden on healthcare providers


How organizations can navigate the effects of language barrier 

Addressing language barriers involves a well-rounded approach to creating an environment where every patient is treated equally. The strategies below offer solutions available to smaller, medium, and larger scale practices because communication equity should be available across all sectors of healthcare. 


Professional medical interpretation services

Access to trained medical interpreters can facilitate communication between healthcare providers and patients who speak different languages. It improves patient satisfaction and adherence to treatment plans.


Communicating with patients using HIPAA-compliant email and text messaging

A simple method of bridging the language gap is using HIPAA compliant email and  HIPAA compliant text messaging services to provide patients with a comprehensive summary of their diagnosis and treatment plans in their preferred language. By offering summaries in the patient's language, healthcare organizations can reduce communication gaps, ensuring that all patients have access to understandable and actionable health information.


Translation of written materials

Translating healthcare documents, consent forms, educational materials, and discharge instructions into multiple languages. Patients' understanding of their health conditions, treatment options, and care instructions, leads to better health outcomes and patient engagement.


Hiring bilingual staff

Recruiting healthcare providers and support staff fluent in the languages most commonly spoken by the patient population. This facilitates direct communication with patients, enhancing their comfort and trust in the healthcare system. It also improves efficiency in healthcare delivery.


Use of technology

Implementing digital tools and platforms, such as translation apps and telehealth services with interpretation capabilities, to support communication. The use of technology offers a scalable and flexible solution for overcoming language barriers, especially in settings where in person interpretation services may not be readily available.


Patient navigation programs

Programs are designed to assist patients in navigating the healthcare system, including scheduling appointments, understanding their health insurance, and following up on care. This is particularly helpful for patients facing language barriers, these programs ensure that patients receive the care they need and fully understand their treatment plans.


Community outreach and education

Engaging with community organizations and leaders to provide health education and resources in languages understood by the community. Healthcare access and preventive care among underserved populations reduce health disparities and foster community trust in healthcare services.

See also: Navigating language barriers in healthcare organizations



How can the healthcare workforce contribute to language barriers?

The healthcare workforce's composition, particularly the scarcity of bilingual or multilingual providers, contributes to the existence and perpetuation of language barriers in healthcare settings.


What exactly are language barriers in healthcare?

Language barriers in healthcare refer to the difficulties patients and healthcare providers experience when they do not share a common language.


Why do language barriers occur in healthcare settings?

Language barriers occur due to the linguistic diversity among patients, including those who speak different languages or dialects, and the limited multilingual capabilities of healthcare personnel.

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