The U.S. healthcare industry was quick to adapt to the changing landscape presented at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's what the challenges faced in 2020 taught us about the needs for language support in healthcare.
The world changed in 2020, and so did the ways in which essential services were accessed. The sudden shift toward virtual care required a reassessment of how health systems would provide language support to limited-English speakers (which comprise about 25 million, or 1 in 11, of Americans). Here are four key takeaways we gleaned from the challenges of 2020 and what they taught us about the healthcare industry's need for language support as we move into 2021.
Appointments that can occur remotely, will.
Though telehealth was increasing in popularity prior to 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic vastly expanded its reach. Keeping people with minor illnesses out of doctor's offices and urgent care clinics helped reduce the spread of the virus while also preventing healthcare facilities from becoming overwhelmed.
By and large, the expansion of telehealth services has worked extremely well for both patients and providers, and it's expected to remain a popular choice even after the pandemic ends. However, the shift has revealed some pain points, especially for patients with limited-English proficiency (LEP). Without the proper language services in place, miscommunication can occur as early as the initial appointment scheduling and may continue through the intake process and the appointment itself.
Example of a patient journey in a virtual care workflow. Watch: Patient-Centered Communication Standards in the Changing Landscape
To ensure that your LEP patients can take full advantage of your ongoing remote health services and receive the care they need, consider a robust language support solution. Medical translation of all documents, forms, and relevant web pages are vital to care, as is providing a medically-qualified interpreter who is linked in throughout the appointment. You may also want to take advantage of the intake period to walk your LEP patients through what to expect on their patient journey, increasing the likelihood of positive outcomes.
Vulnerable populations are at higher risk.
Studies consistently show that language barriers are associated with negative health outcomes. About 44% of limited-English speakers report low health literacy — compare that to the13% of English-speakers who report the same, and you've got a clear picture of a very real, very alarming disparity. Data from several major U.S. cities has already shown that the Hispanic/Latinx account for a "disproportionately large number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths."
Effectively communicating details surrounding the rapidly changing landscape of the pandemic has been critical to ensuring this large segment of the population is not left in the dark. Though many government agencies have taken measures to provide critical pandemic-related information to their limited-English speaking populations, it is ultimately up to health systems to ensure clear communication between staff, providers, and patients. Doing so can save lives.
Location is no longer a determining factor for services.
With the expansion of telehealth services, your patient base is no longer limited to local patients or those who can physically access your facility. There is now a real opportunity for enterprising healthcare providers to offer services in traditionally underserved areas. However, as you expand your reach, you need to ensure you are offering the best possible level of service, regardless of both language and cultural barriers. Ensuring quality medical interpreting and translation services are in place is an extremely important part of the equation as your health system maintains an increased model of virtual care.
When in doubt, choose empathy.
2020 strained our systems and tested our resilience like never before. As COVID-19 waves surged across the country, many healthcare facilities were pushed to the brink. With businesses shuttering temporarily — or permanently— scores of people were suddenly out of work, coping with not only fear and possible illness but also the risk of economic calamity. Both patients and healthcare workers were under extreme stress. Yet, empathy triumphed.
One way to extend empathy toward your patients is by adopting patient-centered communication. An outgrowth of the patient-centered care model, which puts patients in charge of their healthcare decisions, patient-centered communication puts everyone on equal footing. No matter what a patient's level of English proficiency may be, all patients can (and should) be fully participating members of their own treatment team with the proper language support in place.
Is your health system ready for 2021?
The past year has brought on a dramatic shift in the way we interact and communicate. While we can't always prepare for the unexpected, it's more critical than ever to ensure your organization is prepared for the future. Equip providers with language support they can count on and provide patients with the care they deserve (no matter what language they speak).