With 1 in 5 residents speaking a language other than English at home and the diversity of languages spoken in the U.S. increasing, language access services are only growing in importance for healthcare organizations. While healthcare is the industry that has most consistently and robustly provided language services due to legal, ethical, and practical considerations, laws and regulations vary by state and are constantly evolving—as are the languages your patients speak.
The challenge is compounded by a lack of federal funding, which can get in the way of language access initiatives in many organizations. When language access falls off the priority list, language barriers can lead to miscommunications between patients and their providers, resulting in poorer outcomes and lower-quality care. People with limited English proficiency are less likely to engage in preventative care, are more likely to defer needed care, and are more likely to leave the hospital against medical advice. With communication at the heart of effective healthcare, you can’t afford to delay creating and implementing a language access plan.
So, what does 2024 hold for your organization when it comes to communicating with your patients in their language of choice? At Certified Languages International, we keep our finger on the pulse of language trends and regulations across the country. Here’s what you need to know to position your teams to anticipate and adapt to the year ahead.
Language demand will continue to shift
While requests for Spanish-speaking interpreters consistently dominate, demand for the hundreds of other languages spoken in the U.S. is constantly in flux. That’s because global events determine language demand, and an ever-shifting population enriched with communities of immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants means that nothing is static when it comes to the languages your healthcare teams need to be able to support.
In the year ahead, we expect to see a continued increase in the need for interpreters who speak languages of limited diffusion—for example, indigenous languages from Latin America. In fact, we saw a 47% jump in demand for Kʼicheʼ, a Mayan language of Guatemala, in September 2023. People are no longer willing to settle by trying to communicate in the official language of their home country (for example, Spanish) instead of their native tongue (a minority or indigenous language like K’iche’).
We also expect to see demand for other languages continue to ebb and flow regionally as refugees settle across the U.S., which makes understanding your patient base critical to your ability to ensure that your teams can communicate with the people they serve. When it comes to something as nuanced and life-and-death as medical care, it’s essential to enable patients to communicate in their preferred language.
We will see an increasing focus on language access as an enabler of health equity
It has been well-documented that investing in community health equity—reducing and eliminating disparities to attain the highest level of health for all people—can help healthcare organizations improve their financial performance, patient engagement, health outcomes, and value-based care.
The focus of health equity, however, has expanded to include language access. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) updated its framework to advance health equity, including among its goals the desire to promote culturally and linguistically appropriate services that are responsive to a person’s preferred languages.
Providing interpreters isn’t going to solve a health equity crisis, but language services do play a critical role in helping address it—and can be a great opportunity to move your health equity efforts forward. Knowing the communities you serve, and the languages they speak at home, will give you insight into how to better reach and support them.
The role of AI in language access will continue to grow
Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are rapidly reshaping industries, and healthcare is no exception. While people are currently using AI for translation purposes, with machine translation, automated transcription, and AI subtitling the most frequently offered AI-enabled services, AI tools have largely come into play in healthcare in assisting with behind-the-scenes support for things like complex data projections.
The language services industry has responded to the opportunity posed by AI by gathering professionals, from interpreters and educators to trainers, language service companies, and more, to form a task force to establish and disseminate best practices for the safe and responsible use of AI in interpretation. While work is just getting underway, we can expect the work of the Interpreting SAFE-AI Task Force in setting guidelines for the use of AI to be very important, and extremely relevant, to healthcare leaders in the coming year.
Enabling better communication in 2024 and beyond
With evolving language demands and regulations, simply having a language access plan is no longer enough; you also need to ensure that you have the resources on hand to implement it and the training in place to ensure that it is adopted and adhered to. At the same time, you need to be able to track evolving regulations and industry guidelines to ensure that you’re in compliance with the services you are required to provide and the best way to leverage evolving technology in doing so. But you don’t have to go it alone; your language service provider can help you design and execute language access programs and stay on top of regulations and best practices.
At the end of the day, everyone deserves to have access to healthcare and is protected under the law to speak their language. Local, state, and federal governments; your community; and your language services partner all play a key role—and will need to work together—to ensure that you are not only meeting the letter of the law, but also the spirit of it. This is vital to help your teams bridge any communication gaps to engage patients and improve the overall health of the communities you serve.