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The importance of language services during COVID-19

December 03 , 2021

The importance of language services during COVID-19

by Target Language Translation Services

- December 03 2021

medical interpreting

The coronavirus pandemic is intensifying language access issues in health care – problems that could be putting both patients and interpreters, as well as the broader public, at risk.

For example, roughly 25 million people in the U.S. speak no or limited English, needing the help of an interpreter to understand their medical conditions and make informed choices about their care. But in the age of COVID-19, with hospitals in some areas scrambling even to treat patients, sick people don't always have access to interpreters, and interpreters don't always have access to crucial protective gear like masks.

The consequences can be dire when non-English-speaking patients don't have medical interpreters, who are generally considered better equipped to convey sensitive health information than family members or other informal helpers. A recent ProPublica investigation revealed how in New York City, non-English-speaking patients with COVID-19 – the disease caused by the coronavirus – can be subject to delays and miscalculations in health care facilities, in part because physicians struggle to communicate with them.

The lack of communication could create problems even when the pandemic is over. If providers don't ensure they can speak with their patients effectively, those patients may lose trust in the hospital or doctor's office and choose not to seek care there in the future.

To ensure patients are getting medical information, many health care providers, though, provide interpreter services through informal or ad hoc means. They rely on a staff member or a member of the patient’s family to translate and answer questions about potentially complex diagnoses or procedures. The risk is that important details are left out or misunderstood, with potentially hazardous consequences.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the need for qualified, specialized medical interpreters. On any typical day, hospitals are inherently stressful environments. But the conditions of working during the pandemic—where high volumes of critically ill patients increase noise levels and the risk for delays, and where patients may be intubated and, therefore, unable to communicate—make timely, effective communications even more critical.

At the same time, the pandemic, with its extreme risk for disease transmission, stresses the important need and the value of trained professionals medical interpreters, who are well-versed in universal precautions and infection control protocols.

In addition to possessing the highest degree of language fluency, medical interpreters also have a thorough understanding of medical terminology, diagnoses and treatments. They are trained to “read the moment,” so they know when to be transparent and when to step forward to assist with forming questions and interpreting answers. And they are familiar with laws and regulations regarding privacy and reimbursement.

But perhaps the essential skill for a specialized medical interpreter is the high degree of cultural knowledge and sensitivity they bring to their work. The interpreter’s ability to precisely read non-verbal communication and cues—gestures, posture, energy rooted in culture or nationality—is crucial to helping the patient and provider fully understand each other. And, in this way, reduces the risks associated with misunderstanding a diagnosis or a treatment plan.

A medical interpreter’s training, knowledge, and cultural sensitivity removes emotional bias and helps reduce the trauma and anxiety of the situation. It helps build trust between the patient and their family and their physicians or care team. And because they help improve compliance with prescription and treatment plans, they also help reduce the risk for more extended hospital stays and adverse outcomes and, therefore, help reduce the cost of care and the risk of litigation.

In the post-COVID-19 world, where telehealth services will be far more prevalent—possibly the rule, rather than the exception—medical interpreters will also possess the technical skills to integrate their services into any electronic medium seamlessly. And to do so in any setting, whether it is a hospital, doctor’s office, the courts, or a conference.

If you are dealing with a severe illness, you would want your diagnosis fully explained in a language you understand, along with details on how to follow the prescribed treatment to ensure your full and safe recovery by a professional medical interpreter, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to contact me any time through our website:

This article is reprinted from TIME, UMass Chan Medical School and U.S.News.

If there is a copyright, please inform us in time, we will delete it right the first time.

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