How your practice can better serve bilingual patients

How your practice can better serve bilingual patients

Making your practice a welcoming place for everyone in your community involves thinking about language accessibility. English Second Language (ESL) or Limited English Proficiency (LEP) patients may lack the specialized vocabulary necessary to communicate about specific medical issues or understand instructions. A lapse of communication in this context can compromise a patient’s care and makes interaction with healthcare providers more stressful than it has to be. There are several simple things you can do today to help bilingual patients feel comfortable and confident when visiting your practice.

Identify patients who may need language access services early

Add a question to your intake registration form and patient management system, asking new patients which language they are most comfortable with, and make clear notes in their record. That way, when an appointment is made, the receptionist can see ahead of time if an interpreter is needed. It will help you prepare and make the process smoother for both staff and patients.

Seek out trained interpreters

It can be tempting to rely on more fluent family members or fall back on your own language skills, but both choices can be risky. Untrained family interpreters can add, omit, or change what has been said, even accidentally. They may interject their own opinions or unrelated, distracting information which can throw the interview off track. Your patient may be embarrassed to mention a delicate matter in front of a relative. If you and/or your staff are bilingual, that’s great! But you should take measures to ensure that you are truly fluent.

Medical interviewing is a complex skill, even in your first language. Serious errors in both comprehension and communication can easily occur. There are specialized testing services available from companies like Language Line. Trained medical interpreters on site are ideal, but can be expensive and difficult to schedule. There are affordable telephone options with certified medical interpreters available on an as-needed basis.

Explore the ways that technology can help

Great strides are being made in medical language access technologies. Video medical interpretation services are a great step up from telephone services. They can take account of non-verbal body language, which is extremely important at all times, but especially when communicating across cultural lines.

New technologies are being researched all the time as patient diversity grows across the country, so stay informed about new developments.

When using an interpreter, address the patient directly

It may feel natural to speak to the interpreter, but it can make the patient feel outside of the conversation, embarrassed, and shut down. Instead of saying “Ask him what brought him here today,” look directly at the patient, and address all questions to him in the first person.

Translate signage and printed materials

Identify the most common languages spoken in your area, and ensure that you have professionally translated versions of patient forms and informational handouts, and provide specialized pamphlets on what patients can expect during the visit and on their options for medical language access services. Signs in multiple languages can help to reduce disorientation in LEP patients and make them feel welcome and in control of the situation.

In any language, communication is vital to quality healthcare and a great patient experience. Taking steps to provide friendly, efficient bilingual care is important for the health of your community and the vibrancy of your practice.