How to break the language barrier in public health

José López Zamorano | La Red Hispana 
Photo Credit: Freepik

We all know that we Hispanics in the United States face a tsunami of financial and non-financial barriers to obtaining adequate and timely medical care.

Both our economic or immigration status, as well as the language we speak or the length of time we have been in the United States, directly affect access to medical care.

A study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) clearly documents how newly arrived Hispanics “are more likely to be isolated from broader American society and unfamiliar with the health care system.”

Beyond financial barriers to having adequate health insurance, limited English proficiency affects Hispanics’ ability to seek and obtain health care and reduces access to health information, as research has shown.

More than 41 million people in the United States speak Spanish at home, but despite this, many healthcare institutions do not offer adequate interpretation and translation services.

“Communication is fundamental to the health care delivery process and has profound effects on the relationships between patients and providers and on the health care that people receive,” the NIH study maintains.

Language barriers between healthcare providers and patients result in excessive requests for medical tests, lack of understanding of medication side effects, decreased use of primary care, and increased use of the emergency room, according to the study.

That’s why a new initiative from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) deserves applause. It’s aim is to award more than $8 million through 18 grants to train medical or nursing students to provide appropriate cultural and linguistic services for people with limited English proficiency.

According to HRSA, Hispanics whose primary language is Spanish, like many other people with limited English proficiency, disproportionately experience poor medical outcomes and often poor experiences with providers.

Among the main problems are difficulties in understanding doctors’ questions and diagnoses and difficulties in reading and using prescriptions, references for new consultations, and follow-up instructions.

It would be naive to think that $8 million will solve a structural problem as serious as the lack of Hispanic representation in the health system, but it is a positive first step.

To comprehensively address this issue, healthcare providers must invest in robust language access services, including trained interpreters and translated materials. In addition, it is essential to create public information campaigns to raise awareness about these services and patients’ rights.

The goal is clear: equality and equity in access to health care for everyone in the United States, regardless of the language we speak.