PSA: Language support might be contributing more to the success of your health system than you realize.
For healthcare facilities of all sizes, medical interpreting is an essential service that improves patient outcomes. Like any service, there are monetary considerations — but if you're only thinking of the money you'll spend on language support, you might miss the cost-benefits. From improving patient satisfaction and retention to tapping into new patient populations, the financial implications of language support aren't just what you're seeing on your monthly invoice.
Here's a look at how language support can help boost your bottom line (and how you might be able to recoup a portion of the expenses).
What is Medical Interpreting?
A medically qualified interpreter has specialized training and experience translating the words and meanings of doctors and healthcare professionals providing medical treatment. They are also trained in maintaining patient confidentiality to comply with federal regulations and legal requirements.
Why is it Necessary?
Without a qualified medical interpreter, many patients rely on what the American Association of Family Physicians calls "ad hoc" interpreters. These are usually friends or family members, or even children who are able to speak English better than their parent(s). Because these individuals lack specialized knowledge of how to discuss medical conditions, diagnoses, and treatment options, there is a greater chance that something could go wrong. The most common issues include:
Medical errors as a result of poor communication between providers and patients
Violations of patient confidentiality and HIPAA laws
Misunderstandings about the patient's complaints or symptoms
Misunderstandings on the part of the patient about treatment and care
A worse outcome for the patient due to incomplete or incorrect care
In addition to the clinical necessity of hiring medical interpreters to get appropriate and correct care, there is also a financial cost. Studies have shown that a lack of qualified interpreting can lead to:
Longer hospital stays for LEP patients
Difficulty understanding instructions for post-discharge care, medication, and follow-up
Implementing a language support solution that provides limited-English speakers with medical interpreting can help you attract and retain new patients. By providing information and services in a range of languages and formats, health can increase their market share and have a definitive advantage over other providers.
Better Outcomes, Higher Patient Satisfaction
Several questions on the HCAHPS survey ask about listening and explanations. That’s why it's critical for staff and providers to utilize medical interpreters who can efficiently interpret and fully explain medical procedures, prescription instructions and even admittance and discharge processes. If limited-English patients don’t understand what providers are telling them, or feel they’re not being understood, they’ll translate that angst and frustration into those survey answers. But, if they feel confident and in the loop, those answers will reflect that patient satisfaction.
Equipping your health system with high-quality language services and ensuring all staff are trained on the proper procedures will better enable providers to care for all patients – enhancing patient experience, improving outcomes, and raising your HCAHPS score for maximum reimbursement.
The Law & Medical Interpreting
In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that failing to provide language support for someone with limited-English proficiency is a form of discrimination on the basis of national origin. Both the ADA and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) specify that healthcare organizations must offer qualified medical interpreters for LEP patients and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Oral translation services must come from a medically qualified interpreter. This is an important distinction set forth in the ACA because before 2018, someone who was bilingual — even if they lacked specific medical training — could translate in a patient care setting. The ACA law specifies interpreters must be medically qualified, which means using family members, friends, or children is not allowed.
It is the financial responsibility of a healthcare organization to pay for a medically qualified interpreter. However, it's important to know that this doesn't necessarily mean you must hire internal linguists to be there in person all the time. A language services provider can offer a variety of convenient interpreting and translation services in hundreds of languages by phone, over video conference, through telehealth platforms, or in person.
While there is a cost to provide these services, a 2017 study showed that utilizing language support services can actually save money by reducing medical errors and preventing unnecessary medical costs like hospital readmissions.
Some states cover the cost of language services for Medicaid patients as part of the underlying cost of the direct medical service, and will reimburse the cost of a medical interpreter as a result. Currently, there are 15 states that offer reimbursement. Regardless of whether your state offers reimbursement, it's important to keep in mind that all providers must offer language services to anyone who needs it.
In states that do reimburse for the service, providers can claim an administrative match for 50% to 75% of translation and interpretation "claimed as an administrative expense" if they are not already reimbursed as part of the direct service rates. The specific matching rate available depends on your state's policies.