3 Examples of Language Barriers in Healthcare

October 1, 2021

Language barriers have been demonstrated as serious threats for plenty of healthcare systems around the world. Most patients unable to use a second language have to access the hospitals with the help of family, friends, or staff who lack medical interpreting as a communication method to the clinical providers. To deeply understand the seriousness of the issues, these examples of language barriers in healthcare and some possible solutions might be a great help for your research.

In 1990, the Limited English Proficiency (LEP) population in America was acclaimed at 6.1%. 10 years later, the number had a significant rise to 8.1% and in 2010 the LEP population was 8.7%. After 20 years, the United States witnessed an upturn of over 11 million LEP individuals, which fuelled high demands for qualified language services. Without appropriate service providers, the language barriers may put many of those LEP people at risk for adverse patient safety. Similarly, this also happened in other countries but with a moderate number.

Communication and deep understanding are particularly vital when it comes to individual health and well-being. However, not every healthcare center can provide experienced interpreters in common languages. While some LEP arrives at the hospital, their family will reluctantly become the interpreter to fill in the gap. Unfortunately, we barely know their level of understanding of the topic. Plus, they are translating to their loved ones so somehow affection and emotion have an effect on the information. When language becomes a hindrance between patients and caregivers, accurate treatment will not be implemented. Here are some examples which will be best exhibited to this point.

Read more: 6 Fascinating Indonesian Language Facts



3 Examples of language barriers in healthcare

In Salina Valley, California, there is a vast number of Triqui and Mitexco speaking dwellers from Southern Mexico. As the hospital in the neighborhood lacks resources, patients and caregivers strive to communicate via improvised non-verbal cues and gestures. Consequently, one of the LEP cases suffered a heart attack and had a pacemaker placed in the body without the opportunity to discuss in her mother tongue.

Another practical instance is a practitioner resorting to telling a family that although she attempted to save their one-year-old child who was diagnosed with a fatal congenital heart, the result was still incurable. However, she expressed it without a qualified interpreter, hence, she never knows if the child’s family fully understands it. What if they misunderstand and negatively think the health professional was irresponsible?

South Florida, an LEP patient access to the hospital in a coma state. His Spanish-speaking relatives informed the doctor that he was “intoxicado”, meaning “nauseous”, but have the wrong translation as saying “intoxicated”. As a result, it leads to an intensive care unit for the diagnosis of “probable intentional drug overdose” on the patients who quickly became quadriplegic after the misdiagnosis. This medical error not only damages the healthcare center’s reputation but also costs them $71 million for the malpractice settlement.

Strategies to overcome linguistic stumbling blocks

To overcome the language barriers in clinical environments, here are some solutions for medical centers and health professionals to apply.

Hiring bilingual staff

Health care providers with proficiency in more than one language will be the most decent option since they can directly and immediately provide the service to patients without any delay for interpreting. This significantly works in emergency cases we don’t have enough time to save someone’s life. Furthermore, having a doctor who speaks the same language as his or her patients makes the treatment process smoother. Especially, patients might feel understood and sympathized with a doctor coming from a similar background.

Cooperate with professional interpreter service

Medical organizations apply a variety of approaches from their language service providers to communicate with the patients. For example, they can hire several subject-matter interpreters to help doctors convey important messages to patients. Otherwise, telephone interpretation can also demonstrate effective communication if the hospitals are on a tight budget.

Offer interpreter skill training to volunteer.

Another cost-effective strategy is to offer your volunteer a medical training course in the language you required. Especially for those who already have a basic linguistic level of the particular languages should apply, so that they can quickly convey the medical-related information to your patients. Nonetheless, these volunteers should involve in some basic activities such as hospital admission, meal provision, which are not directly related to the diagnosis or treatments. Otherwise, one minor mistranslation because of clinical knowledge will lead to disastrous consequences.

Ensure that your written materials are accurate

Researchers at Hablamos Juntos found that tremendous healthcare centers were draining their budget by wasting money and time on poor translation materials which are indigestible to the sufferers. If you’re unable to provide in-person interpreters or similar services, translated written documents are the only thing that helps you communicate with the LEP patients. Hence, experts should tailor these contents to the reading level of the audience and also adapt to cultural appropriateness. To maximize the probability of a qualified document for patients, you should rely on a well-versed medical translation agency.

A wide range of healthcare centers is already deploying some of the above remedies to agilely overcome the language obstacles at work. What about you? Have you tried any other method to jump over the language barriers in the clinical environment? Let’s share those interesting opinions below!


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