Interpreters Can Help Patients Access Important Vaccine Education

Female clinician providing a vaccine to a female patient

In the months since the first cases of COVID-19 began to appear in the U.S., there has been a daily influx of information about coronavirus coming from all media outlets, video streaming platforms, and even ads. Lots of this information is oftentimes breaking news about the virus — a new discovery, potentially lifesaving news about its spread and treatment, etc.

But there have been multiple accounts that this information lags for communities whose primary language is not English. Limited English proficient (LEP) communities, which are usually made up of people of color, have seen the highest number of cases and deaths in the country.

The COVID-19 crisis highlights an informational gap that exists for communities that don’t speak English. Most importantly, it highlights how crucial it is to provide health information, especially about vaccinations that impact the health of entire communities, in a patient’s native language. 

Public health and vaccines

As we continue to navigate the global pandemic, health experts are racing to create a vaccine to help control the spread of the virus and ultimately save lives. Vaccine development trials are time-consuming and require extensive studies to ensure effectiveness. Once that part of the task has been completed, a different set of barriers come up. One of those barriers is patient access to vaccine education.

Because vaccination is imperative for the health of a community, it becomes necessary to consider the language barriers that exist when educating patients about the effectiveness of vaccines.

Related: 7 Tips to Help You Confidently Use a Remote Interpreter

Cultural and language barriers 

Person holding test tube rack. One test tube is filled with blood drawn from a patient.

Vaccination campaigns and screening rates for other diseases, such as hepatitis B, can teach us a lot about the barriers to vaccination. In a 2011 study titled “Barriers to Screening for Hepatitis B Virus Infection in Asian Americans,” language is cited as a key barrier to hepatitis screening and, ultimately, vaccination.

Healthcare providers simply cannot communicate sufficiently enough alone to gauge an individual’s risk and need for vaccination. Cultural context is also imperative in understanding an individual’s healthcare decision. For example, in the study cited above, “the belief that blood is a nonrenewable vital energy for the body may prevent [Asian American] individuals from having blood drawn for testing.” Understanding a patient’s cultural views of certain diseases (and the lifestyles that are commonly associated with them) may also impact the decision to immunize. This is part of the cultural competency offered by a language interpreter.

Healthcare providers may also find challenges from parents who hesitate to vaccinate their newborns against diseases. This stems from misconceptions about how the disease can be acquired, or simply from fear about the vaccine itself. A thorough conversation with parents can help dispel these beliefs and replace them with information about vaccination regimens and effectiveness.

For LEP parents, access to interpretation services is the only way this high-stakes conversation can take place. 

The interpreter’s toolbox 

To achieve herd immunity to COVID-19, interpreters will play an important role in LEP education. As individuals who are highly skilled in the medical terminology often used in these interactions, interpreters are positioned as frontline workers in our battle against coronavirus because they can deliver concise and accurate messaging in real time. When the vaccine becomes available, interpreters will be ready to help with immunization efforts to help keep LEP communities healthy. 

If you’re a medical interpreter, check out this resource to help you navigate vaccination education in future calls.

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