ULG's Language Services Blog

Healthcare IT Today: Utilizing Technology to Expand Language Access

Original Publication: Healthcare IT Today

Communication and connection are crucial in healthcare settings. To better connect with their community and ensure equitable access, healthcare organizations are shifting to a more human-focused, patient-centered care approach. Without a strong focus on language access, some groups of vulnerable patients may fall through the cracks.

As of 2019, almost 68 million people in the United States spoke a language other than English at home. A significant percentage of these people have limited English proficiency (LEP).

Research shows that patients have poorer health outcomes when they don’t speak the same language as their providers, fueling disparities in healthcare access. This can go beyond language and include people with different abilities—your plan must cover all experiences, including providing access to patients who are hearing or visually impaired. Language access plans (LAP) provide organizations with a roadmap to ensure access and connection that alleviate these disparities and improve patient experience.

Healthcare organizations can improve efficiencies and optimize the patient experience by incorporating the latest tools and technologies into their LAPs. Continue reading to learn which language solution technologies can be integrated to efficiently provide meaningful access to all patients, no matter their culture or language needs.

The Goal: a Seamless Patient Experience

The following questions can help you evaluate how well your organization is meeting the needs of patients with LEP currently, and how you can improve to provide a seamless patient experience.

  1. When linguistically diverse patients interact with your organization, is the technology you use creating barriers to access or breaking them down?
  2. Are patients able to access information and care easily and efficiently in the language they prefer, or are they faced with a frustrating experience due to complicated processes?
  3. Is language access provided in a way that is patient centered? For example, during phone calls, can your team organize the flow to keep the same interpreter with the same patient throughout the appointment to increase trust and reduce overall handling time?

When implemented correctly, technology can be used to create consistency and increase access, and its utilization should be focused on providing the best care and experience possible.

Integrate the Best Interpreting Solutions

Linguistically diverse patients need to be able to have conversations about their healthcare in their native language. There are several different interpreting methods available to facilitate communication with culture and nuance in mind.

Each option is best suited for distinct healthcare situations and requires focused technology to successfully implement.

Here’s a quick guide on when and how to use which type of interpreting:

On-site Interpreting (OSI)

On-site interpreting is the most personal option. The interpreter is in the room with the provider and the patient, well-placed to pick up on body language and social cues. OSI is the best option for discussing sensitive issues including trauma, providing therapy sessions, and for pediatric appointments.

From an IT integration perspective, tools for requesting OSI should be easy to use and integrated with existing workflows. The benefits of using an OSI scheduling platform include the ability to cancel appointments, write your interpreter a note or review, or go paperless.

Video Remote Interpreting (VRI)

Face-to-face interaction is the best way to build the personal connections that are so important in a healthcare setting, but sometimes having an interpreter in the room is not possible due to time constraints or lack of availability. 

In these cases, VRI is a powerful tool, combining the flexibility of over-the-phone interpreting while allowing the interpreter to access body language, gestures and facial expressions for more complete communication. VRI is also becoming a popular way to enable access to sign language interpreters for deaf and hard of hearing patients. A 2019 study found that implementing VRI in a clinic reduced the wait time for language services from an hour to five minutes.

VRI solutions are accessible through a variety of mobile and personal devices, allowing integration with existing telemedicine solutions that provide secure access to ensure HIPAA compliance.

VRI does require specific technical capabilities to ensure a positive patient experience. The National Association for the Deaf recommends that VRI only be used with a dedicated, high-speed connection to support high-definition video and clear audio. The screen must be large enough to allow the patient and the interpreter to easily see each other, computers must have adequate processing speed, steps must be taken to avoid interference from nearby medical devices, and all equipment should be tested often for the best experience.

When possible, offer patients a choice between VRI and OSI and respect their preference.

Over-the-Phone Interpreting (OPI)

Over-the-phone interpreting takes place by call. This is often the least expensive interpreting option, and allows access for the greatest number of languages.

One downside to employing OPI is that the interpreter can’t see the patient or the provider, and vice-versa, depriving both patient and interpreter of non-verbal communication tools.

As a result, it’s best suited for situations such as preventative care or non-emergency appointments.

OPI itself is not new, but there have been advances in call center technology recently that can reduce wait time and improve call quality. It’s worth examining your current setup with fresh eyes periodically to see how it can be improved and to research the benefits of each choice.

Remote Simultaneous Interpreting (RSI)

Simultaneous interpreting is when the interpreter interprets what’s being said as the speaker is talking, instead of waiting for them to finish.

Participants speak and hear everything in their own language in RSI, using a cloud-based platform that connects them with healthcare workers and  interpreters. The advantages of simultaneous interpreting in a healthcare setting include increased efficiency, a more natural conversation flow, and an improved patient experience.

RSI is essential for group settings and patient education classes. It is also an excellent solution for real-time consults, where delays, pauses or breaks in communication would be detrimental.

Recently, a children’s hospital conducted a clinical trial for children with a rare neurological disease needed to assess patients from around the world. They chose RSI to provide an enhanced user experience and a natural flow of conversation between parents and doctors.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote technologies such as Zoom, unlocking new options in language access. The use cases for RSI are increasing as technology integrations and comfort levels have made it more accessible. Security and quality must be kept in mind, similar to VRI qualifications.

Streamlined Solutions for Accessible Communications

Linguistically diverse patients require more than interpreting services. Meaningful access also includes written translation and alternative formats for documents to address diverse language and communication needs. This would include any patient-facing communication or collateral, including forms, sign-in sheets, patient education and other paperwork.

Recent technological advances have allowed for improved speed and efficiency for these requests, allowing all patients to easily access healthcare information in their preferred language and format.

Machine Translation (MT) and Neural Machine Translation (NMT)

MT and NMT can greatly streamline your document translation process, but they must be used wisely, given the potential consequences of errors in a healthcare setting. That means using secure, compliant NMT and MT tools that have been trained specifically for healthcare applications. It also means utilizing a robust quality-control process with reviews by specialized medical translators.

A language service provider (LSP) can help you harness the capabilities and power of MT and NMT to reduce translation time and cost without compromising quality.

For patients with LEP who also have accessibility needs, these tools make it much easier to get content into their preferred language in order to more easily generate accessible documents or audio files.

Translation Management Systems (TMS) and Online Portals

A TMS streamlines the process of requesting translated documents, allowing easy, secure, online access to translation services. These systems reduce the time spent managing the translation process, so patients can get the information they need efficiently while minimizing the impact on frontline staff.

Connect with Patients Directly to Improve Health Equity

IT tools have a role to play in alleviating health disparities due to language barriers. When deployed well, they can maximize the success of your language access plan by reducing friction and improving understanding between providers and patients, enabling better care and improving health equity. 

Getting the most out of these tools requires a deep understanding of the processes involved in providing language services in a healthcare setting and strategically utilizing the available tools to make these processes more efficient.

Planning for inclusion in your language access plans not only provides benefits for all involved but is expected in today’s global market. When you utilize the above interpretation and translation tools, you can reach your community where they are better and faster, increasing access and providing a seamless patient experience. 

An LSP will provide the equitable solutions that work for your organization’s needs. Whether you require interpreting that integrates with your existing system or an efficient portal for requesting secure document translation, the tools to connect with culturally diverse patients are at your fingertips. 


Topics: Industry