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Healthcare Standards Across Language Barriers

by Sarah Whiteside (‘24) 

Hello. Hola. Bonjour. Ciao. Hallo. These are various ways to say hello in different languages. We all originate from different backgrounds; we carry distinctive identities with roots in different cultures. Our history makes us unique, but it can also pose problems in healthcare settings.

We often don’t understand how our cultural differences play a role in the healthcare setting, but our language barriers can inhibit effective care. Limitations in communication can hinder individuals’ ability to receive satisfactory care in the hospital. There continues to be rapid growth of the population with limited English proficiency due to the attraction of immigrants into the United States and few incoming doctors are prepared to handle this population of people. Furthermore, culture and language gaps continue to expand as our medical and health technology innovates and improves. Technology can negatively impact language because technology has led to the emergence of internet slang in which less people are learning how to speak and write in standard English. These barriers pose problems because they diminish the satisfaction and perhaps even trust among both medical professionals and patients. Language barriers in healthcare lead to miscommunication between the medical professional and patient, decrease the quality of healthcare delivery, and adversely impact the relationship between the physician and patient.

Language barriers arise when the patient and provider do not share a native language. These patients who do not speak the local language are disadvantaged in terms of access to healthcare services, potentially leading to unequal treatment and unequal health outcomes. The language barriers indirectly impact the quality of the healthcare that patients receive by reducing communication and satisfaction. As one study by the OMAN medical journal noted, “patients who face language barriers are also more likely to consume more healthcare services and experience more adverse events” (Shamsi et al., 2020). Physicians have difficulty understanding patients who do not speak their language, potentially leading to misdiagnosis and unnecessary medications. Furthermore, the language differences increase the patient’s likelihood of missing medical appointments and/or having problems scheduling appointments.

A major barrier between providers and patients is miscommunication. Communication between patients and medical providers is essential for effective healthcare provisions. These communication failures between patients and their caregivers contribute to adverse events and medical errors. Furthermore, it can be difficult for the patient to establish a strong, personal connection with the doctor because relationship-building is hindered with interpreter-mediated communication. They may feel less comfortable sharing information due to this barrier and they could keep something to themselves; this leads to the medical professional’s incomplete understanding of the patient’s situation. Along with language differences, patients also face the difficulties of understanding a complex diagnosis in an unknown world. The AMA Journal of Ethics exclaimed that “physicians need to understand that the health world is a foreign country to many Americans and pay closer attention to understanding the language patients use and how they draw meaning from what they hear” (Partida, 2007). We base our experiences off something that is familiar to us, but for many, the hospital is a scary and foreign place, adding to the barriers to receive effective care.

In order to increase patient satisfaction within healthcare, it is necessary to provide interpreter services. Translators are available to address these challenges and improve healthcare access, patient satisfaction, and communication. However, these services pose critical challenges in terms of access and financial burden, and previous studies have shown that most healthcare institutions have poor access to interpreter services or no services at all; this can be upwards of 33% of hospitals which fail to offer these services (Shamsi et al., 2020). Furthermore, these translation services do have their downfalls: interpreter services contribute to increased cost and length of treatment visits. They can also be a source of workplace stress and an impediment to the delivery of high-quality healthcare.

Looking ahead, these language barriers will continue to worsen as our medical system becomes more advanced. Translator services are the start to lessening the language gap. However, translators are not the solution. Bridging this language barrier also involves focusing on understanding cultural differences. Physicians should provide an environment that is welcoming to people of all languages; it’s not just about being bilingual but understanding the different cultures. Furthermore, physicians can rely on diagrams, images, and models which can help them overcome communication issues. Ultimately, the best solution for resolving these language barriers has not been found, but physicians can continue to become more cognizant of different cultures and as we begin to recognize that this is a large issue, more people will understand the need for a solution.

Works Cited

Shamsi H, Almutairi A, Mashrafi S, and Kalbani T. 2020. Implications of Lanugage Barriers for Healthcare: A systematic review. OMAN Medical Journal, 35 (2).

Partida Y. 2007. Language barriers and the patient Encounter. AMA Journal of Ethics, 9(8):566-571.

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