How Healthcare Technology is Improving Care for Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Patients

By David Fetterolf

Picture your last doctor’s appointment or hospital visit. You probably checked in at reception or administration, maybe you were weighed and had your blood pressure taken, but before long you were in an exam room having a conversation with your doctor about your health. Good healthcare relies heavily on effective doctor/patient communication. Whether you are discussing your symptoms, a diagnosis, or your treatment plan, most of what we experience as patients is conversation. Now imagine that your doctor speaks another language. Suddenly that interpersonal communication breaks down. Not speaking the same language as your healthcare provider is a scary reality for more than 25 million limited English proficiency Americans.

The limited English proficiency population in the United States is growing. Between 1990 and 2013, the LEP population grew by more than 80%, from 14 million to more than 25 million. In addition to growing, the population evolved. In 1990 the top three languages other than English were Spanish, French and German. In 2010 the top three languages other than English were Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog.

Under Federal Law, healthcare institutions are required to provide meaningful access to language services, but with populations changing so rapidly and drastically, many of our nation’s hospitals struggle to keep up with the growing demand for medically qualified interpreters.



That is, they used to struggle before the advent of interpretation technology made interpreters available 24x7x365.

How Technology is Enabling Patient/Provider Communication in the Face of Language Barriers

When most people think of language technology, they think of Google Translate. But when it comes to healthcare communication, things get a bit more complicated than opening a browser and typing, “how do you feel today?” into the text box. Healthcare communication is nuanced, often complicated and sometimes emotional. For cross-language communication like that, a trained and qualified interpreter is the only way to go. Accessing those interpreters is what becomes problematic.

The major tech solution that has changed the healthcare interpretation game is video remote interpretation. Through video remote interpretation, healthcare professionals can connect with medically qualified interpreters in a variety of languages 24 hours a day over video call. This way, interpretation is never more than a few seconds away, and the patient and interpreter both reap the benefits of visual communication along with the audio connection. Prior to this technology, healthcare professionals had to rely on either over-the-phone interpretation, which lacked a visual component, or on site interpreters who can be difficult to schedule and can be slow to arrive. More often than not desperate healthcare providers would turn to whoever brought the patient in, whether it be a family member or a friend, for language assistance. This is a big patient safety no-no. Imagine being asked to tell a family member the details of a diagnosis or condition. Are you confident you could do it effectively? Video remote interpretation made language access easy, safe, and reliable.

The second, more recent technological advancement in the interpretation world actually helps onsite interpreters to schedule and attend patient appointments more efficiently. Through a mobile application that functions a lot like Uber, healthcare institutions can send out language assistance requests directly to an interpreter’s smartphone. Prior to this technology, hospitals either had to staff interpreters, or rely on a local interpretation agency that offered no visibility into their hiring or scheduling processes. With this new application, the transparency in scheduling and reporting make it much easier for healthcare institutions to bring in person interpreters onsite for LEP patient visits. 

Measurable Results:

Along with improved technology comes improved analytics. While interpreter sessions are never recorded for reasons related to HIPAA, session time and duration may be recorded. The majority of hospitals utilizing video remote interpretation have seen a drop in session length. The hypothesis here is that the addition of visual cues as afforded by video call technology has increased the efficiency of communication, as compared to the audio-only communication afforded by over-the-phone interpretation. Reduced session length can expand to shorter hospital stays and more patients seen per day by providers.

Hospitals utilizing the Uber-like application to schedule onsite interpreters have seen a noteworthy increase in interpreter utilization. One hospital system in Pennsylvania saw their staff interpreter utilization rise from 17% to an astounding 93%, all by scheduling them via this online application.

Amidst all of this increased efficiency, patient satisfaction is as high as ever, since LEP patients no longer have to wait for an interpreter or rely on a friend of loved one for assistance.

Interpretation technology has changed the way more than 25 million Americans speak to their healthcare providers. I look forward to continued advancement and the further improvement of care for all patients, regardless of the primary language they speak.

David Fetterolf is President of Language Services for Stratus Video.

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