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5 Tips for Improving Patient Safety for Limited-English Speakers

Graphic with text: Tips for Improving Patient Safety for Limited-English Speakers

The United States is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. Research shows more than 21% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, and roughly 25 million individuals are limited-English proficient (LEP).

In healthcare, this means more patients seeking care are in need of language support services. Unfortunately, language barriers often still exist between healthcare providers and LEP patients — causing concerns around patient safety and creating unnecessary health disparities. LEP patients are often at risk for longer hospital stays, surgical and treatment delays, complications after treatment, and avoidable hospital readmission. 

Thus, risk management targeted toward the safety of LEP populations is vital in any healthcare setting. Here are five tips for improving the safety of LEP patients in your organization based on recommendations from The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality


1. Organizational Culture 

Develop a support system that is mindful of diverse patients and their needs. Cultural competence in healthcare is all about fostering a culture within your organization that supports the full diversity of patients you may encounter. Fostering this supportive culture involves strategy from leadership for the entire organization and good follow-through with staff and providers (where resources and tools are concerned) to accomplish the core goals and strategies. You can foster a supportive culture by:

  • Aligning your overall mission with intentions of overcoming cultural barriers that interfere with quality care and patient safety 
  • Sharing patient safety events and lessons learned across every department to provide ongoing learning opportunities on how to improve 
  • Involving LEP patients and cultural advisors to make use of patient feedback and perspectives and hone cultural awareness 


2. Improved Systems 

Adjust current protocols to more easily pinpoint medical errors with LEP patients. Doing so will help you identify medical errors, and why those errors occurred. For example, if an LEP patient did not have access to a medical interpreter, and this led to a misdiagnosis, this reveals that something within your system may be lacking. Make an effort to document patient data regarding the language they speak, what language services may be needed, and the interactions where language support was utilized. In patient safety data fields, track how language or culture interfered with adequate care so problems are more easily identifiable by every staff member. 


3. Reporting 

Make sure medical errors among LEP patients are properly reported by:

  • Incorporating strategies that make it easy for staff members to report medical errors 
  • Developing targeted communications for staff members and medical interpreters, so they know how to report safety events 
  • Training staff on what should be deemed an LEP patient safety event 
  • Considering how your staff can use outside methods to identify safety events beyond the typical reporting protocols 


4. Monitor LEP Patient Safety 

Make an effort to routinely monitor LEP patient safety. You want instances and events documented, but there should also be a process in place to analyze these events periodically. For instance, you could perform routine analyses of organization-wide reports on all patient safety events. 

You could also utilize forums to discuss near misses and medical errors among the linguistically and culturally diverse patients your organization treated. This can be helpful to better grasp the underlying causes of safety threats or scenarios in which the patient was at high risk. Further, a better understanding can lead to developing strategies to improve and prevent problems in the future. 


5. Prevention 

Prevent medical errors with LEP patients by addressing the root causes of those errors. For example, if you are using an interpreter who is not medically qualified, partnering with a new language support provider could reduce the number of safety events for LEP patients. A few other ways to help with prevention include: 

  • Strengthening language support services to be more inclusive of all patients 
  • Providing patients with translated documents pertaining to their care 
  • Creating strategies to simplify medical interpreter scheduling
  • Training staff on how to use language support, how to advocate for LEP patients, and how to be culturally competent


Improving LEP Patient Safety Enhances Patient Experience and Protects Your Organization

In healthcare, the ability to convey information in an understandable way can mean everything to a patient's safety. Working to improve the safety of LEP patients not only enhances the patient experience but also ensures they get the best care and your organization does not face unnecessary liability. 

If you are concerned that lack of language support interferes with the safety of your patients, download our free workbook to assess your organization's Language Access Plan:


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