Language Services is Necessary for Health Equality with Migrants and Refugees

Updated on November 17, 2023

The global movement of people has become an undeniable reality and as a result, the migration and refugee crises have had a profound impact on shaping today’s societies and economies. This has led to a multitude of challenges and opportunities. Among these challenges, is the need for accessible and equitable healthcare services for migrants and refugees.

As the world continues to witness an influx of migrants and refugees into various countries, it is crucial to acknowledge that these individuals often face multiple barriers when accessing healthcare. Language stands as a formidable obstacle that impedes the ability for people to receive proper care. This is a pressing issue, but language services can serve as a pivotal tool in addressing this challenge.

The Complexity of the Issue

Migrants and refugees leave their homes in search of safety, opportunity, and a better life. However, their journey is often filled with uncertainties, and upon arrival in a new country, they sometimes encounter unfamiliar systems, including healthcare. The very act of navigating these systems can be daunting, and when language barriers are added to the mix, the challenge becomes monumental.

Consider the situation in New York City, that has long been a beacon for migrants and refugees. The public school system has been grappling with an influx of children who do not speak English. This surge has placed immense pressure on teachers and administrators, emphasizing the magnitude of language-related challenges in the broader context of public services. This is not a unique story to New York and this type of scenario is happening all across the country.

When we turn our attention to focus specifically on healthcare, a similar story unfolds. The healthcare system is already complex and daunting for native speakers. Imagine the confusion and fear that non-English-speaking migrants and refugees experience when trying to access care. The consequences of miscommunication in healthcare can be dire, leading to misdiagnoses, inappropriate treatments, and a lack of preventive care – all of which contribute to health disparities.

Language Access as a Fundamental Right

A critical aspect of addressing the healthcare needs of migrants and refugees is the provision of language services. This is not merely a matter of convenience; it is a fundamental right. Language access is enshrined in law to protect the civil rights of individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) or those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Language barriers can lead to unintentional violations of these rights when individuals (some children) are asked to interpret for their family members or friends in healthcare settings. Even well-meaning individuals, such as bilingual janitors or staff, may be thrust into roles they are not qualified for, resulting in legal and ethical violations. It is essential that individuals understand their right to request language assistance and medically qualified trained interpreters. 

Cultural Sensitivity and Dissemination of Information

Beyond the legal aspects, cultural sensitivity plays a vital role in language access. Healthcare providers must recognize that effective communication goes beyond mere interpretation. It involves understanding cultural nuances, breaking down complex medical information into digestible pieces, and ensuring that individuals are comfortable asking questions. 

Take the word hospice for example. In the U.S., hospice care focuses on caring for and treating terminally ill patient’s pain and symptoms and attending to their emotional and spiritual needs at the end of life. Hospice prioritizes comfort and quality of life by reducing pain and suffering. However, in other cultures, hospice is a negative word and means being institutionalized. 

Additionally, the dissemination of information must be considered. Will all information be shared, or are there cultural norms that dictate what is disclosed? Are individuals in a position to have these conversations? These are complex questions that require careful consideration to ensure that healthcare services are truly equitable.

Equitable healthcare services demand a nuanced approach that considers the diverse communication challenges patients may face. Among these challenges, providing translation services for individuals with LEP stands as a cornerstone. Language barriers can impede understanding, jeopardizing patient safety and informed decision making. Access to professional interpreters or translators ensures that every patient can comprehensively engage with their healthcare journey. 

Healthcare providers must be attuned to the varying degrees of literacy across cultures. Literacy levels can differ not only among different cultural groups, but also within them. Healthcare information must be conveyed in an accessible manner using plain language and visual aids when necessary. Recognizing these disparities and adapting communication accordingly fosters a patient-centric approach that empowers individuals to actively participate in care. 

The dissemination of healthcare information must also navigate cultural sensitivities. What is shared and how it is communicated can differ markedly among cultures. Understanding these nuances and facilitating complex conversations on topics like end-of-life care or chronic illness management with cultural awareness and respect are essential to delivering care that honors the diverse needs and values of all patients. 

Creating a Path to Equity

To truly address the healthcare needs of migrants and refugees, we must take a comprehensive approach. This includes not only raising awareness and providing equal access to care but also advocating for systemic changes and promoting language services through medically trained and qualified interpreters as a fundamental component of healthcare delivery.

Incorporating language services into the healthcare system is not just about compliance; it is an investment in better patient outcomes, lower healthcare costs, and a more equitable society. It empowers individuals to actively participate in their healthcare decisions and reduces the challenges on healthcare providers.

Policy and funding play critical roles in this endeavor. Recognizing the value of language services and providing adequate funding at the federal and state levels can alleviate the burden on healthcare systems and promote equal access to care for all individuals, regardless of language proficiency.

The healthcare needs of migrants and refugees are a pressing issue that demands our attention and action. Language barriers should not be allowed to stand in the way of accessing healthcare, and language services must be recognized as a fundamental and necessary component of healthcare delivery.

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Jacobia Solomon
President of Language Services at AMN Healthcare Language Service

Jacobia Solomon, President of Language Services, is responsible for the leadership, strategic direction, vision, growth, and performance of AMN Healthcare Language Service.

Ms. Solomon joined AMN Healthcare in 2022 with extensive experience in innovation, growth, and transformation; global technology integrations and solutions and working in diverse industries. She is known for driving brand growth, operational excellence, people development and delivering financial performance. Most recently, Ms. Solomon has been helping to improve operations and drive company growth as the Chief Executive Officer of Siemens Logistics Canada. She was responsible for increasing profits and expansion efforts into high-growth, emerging markets. Previous experience includes VP of Engineering at Siemens Logistics, KPS Global of Manitowoc, Mimeo, and various leadership positions with Newell Rubbermaid and Ford Motor Company.

As a passionate leader, Jacobia finds gratitude and honor in leading teams while empowering and motivating them toward a common purpose and vision. Her philosophy is to always “call others into leadership with you. As you climb, it's important to lift others with you.” As a result of Jacobia’s visionary leadership, her organizations have received multiple awards and accolades for stellar growth and performance, and customer impact.

Ms. Solomon is certified in Scrum, PMP, Lean Six-Sigma Black Belt and in Lean as a Kaizen Leader. She holds an Executive Master of Business Administrative from the University of Texas Arlington, a Master of Science degree in Engineering Management from the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. And with all her accolades and accomplishments, what truly matters to Jacobia is her family. She has been happily married for 20+ years with two sons.