How Medical Interpreters Can Make Healthcare More Equitable for LEP Patients

Three empty hospital beds in a room. Easy access to telephone interpreters lowers readmission rates for LEP individuals.

The past several years have seen a growing demand for trained medical interpreters, as 20% of U.S. households speak a language other than English at home and healthcare providers treat a growing number of limited English proficient (LEP) patients. The COVID-19 pandemic and difficulties with the vaccine rollout have also exposed inequity in the healthcare system.

Access to quality language services is more important than ever, and prioritizing LEP patient engagement will continue to play an important role in recalibrating the healthcare system. Luckily, language interpreters have been stepping up and performing a crucial role during these challenging times. Let’s look at how trained medical interpreters help make healthcare more equitable for LEP patients by improving outcomes, lowering readmission rates, and improving patient satisfaction overall.

Improved health outcomes

Every patient needs to receive accurate information throughout their medical appointment to ensure quality care, but using ad hoc interpreters such as friends or family can lead to adverse health effects. In some cases, having a trained interpreter could be the difference between life and death. “[The patient] could walk out the door and do serious harm to themselves because they don’t have the right information,” said one professional interpreter.

Complete and accurate discharge instructions in the patient’s preferred language can help ensure they know what steps to take after leaving the hospital, including how to take medication or when to make follow-up appointments.

From interpreting medical questionnaire when a patient is admitted to facilitating communication for informed consent during procedures, trained medical interpreters are crucial to keeping LEP patients informed so they can make the best decisions for their health.

Related: 6 of the Top Questions About Interpreting Services Answered

Lower readmission rates

We discussed how medical interpreters improve health outcomes for LEP patients. Now let’s look at how those outcomes lead to another benefit: fewer hospital readmissions.

A 2017 report by the University of California looked at readmission rates for LEP patients over a 3-year period. The study found that there were significantly fewer readmissions when telephonic interpreters were provided. The report stated that language access “represents an important service that all medical centers should provide to achieve equitable, high quality health care.”

Fewer readmissions benefit patients and providers, as it can be both an indication of quality care for the patient and can reduce hospital expenditures. The costs of providing trained medical interpreters is offset by the estimated savings from fewer readmissions. The study went on to conclude that easy access to telephonic interpreters “improves the quality of care for patients.”

Better patient experience

Medical visits can be stressful for anyone, whether it’s a trip to the emergency department or a routine exam. Language barriers can compound that stress and make it more difficult to navigate the complicated healthcare system. However, LEP patients report higher satisfaction when provided with a medical interpreter.

In one study, patients reported increased satisfaction with both their physician and their overall hospital experience. Trained medical interpreters help providers offer their standard of care for all patients. Some patients even spend less time in the hospital when provided with language services.

Removing language barriers can help ensure that LEP patients get the care they need throughout their visit. This makes healthcare more equitable and provides patients with a better experience during often difficult times.

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