Telemedicine Is Here to Stay, and Interpreting Needs to Be Part of the Conversation [Part 2]

Female clinician using a laptop to initiate a telemedicine and interpreting session

This is the second post in our series discussing language access and the future of COVID-19. You can read part 1, part 3, part 4, and part 5 now.

Telemedicine has seen a sharp increase in use since the start of the pandemic, thanks, in part, to social distancing measures, lifted restrictions for video visits, and changes to reimbursement models. 

With many patients and providers now using it out of necessity, there’s a lot of speculation about whether it will continue to be as popular after we safely re-open our economies and providers start seeing more patients in person again. 

Frankly, the outlook is good. According to a recent Harris Poll, of the patients who have used telemedicine services during the pandemic, 8 out of 10 reported that they liked or loved the experience. And a McKinsey survey showed that 57% of providers were more approving of telemedicine now than they were before COVID-19. It’s easy to see why. It’s convenient, it’s a safe alternative to in-person care, and it’s cost-effective for patients.

Despite the optimism, however, telemedicine platforms weren’t built with everyone’s needs in mind. With its increased use, new challenges emerged that quickly need addressing. Take interpreting, for example. On popular platforms, multilingual support is essentially nonexistent but critical in our ever-growing, diverse nation. The recent health crisis has brought these disparities to the forefront.

“We had built this system where these extra tools, these virtual care tools, weren’t for the limited English population,” Jorge Rodriguez, a hospitalist and clinician-investigator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told The Verge. “These tools were for the privileged. When we made the shift from these being privileged care to standard care, you see all the people who aren’t able to access them.”

In the scramble to shift our healthcare system from an in-person care model to a remote one, ensuring access to interpreting services likely wasn’t a priority. In the short term, that’s understandable. But as we continue to learn and move forward, and telemedicine remains a mainstream offering, it will be important to ensure it has the proper features so everyone can access the support they need for a successful visit. 

How can telemedicine and language access move forward?

The swift and deadly nature of the pandemic required healthcare organizations to adopt and implement telemedicine solutions with expediency. (Honestly, during such a time, whatever works, works!)

Relaxed regulations, for example, allow providers to use non-HIPAA-compliant applications like FaceTime to see patients. These measures are temporary, so institutions will have to seriously consider what solution they’ll want to implement or keep permanently.

Of course there will be the usual mix of stakeholders involved in making such a big decision, but there is one person who should be involved and help lead the charge that you’re likely not thinking of: You, the language access professional. 

Related: The Importance of Language Access to Telehealth Utilization

Building a successful team

Members of different teams meet to discuss telemedicine and interpreting strategy

The American Medical Association’s Telemedicine Implementation Playbook suggests forming a telemedicine implementation team comprising members from different departments.

“These different viewpoints are critical to the planning and implementation of telehealth,” the authors state. “[T]hey help to: anticipate barriers from all angles, facilitate buy-in, distribute workload, [and] minimize workflow disruption during implementation.”

If the goal is equal access to digital healthcare solutions, direct feedback on what (and how) technologies will be most effective for linguistically underserved populations is invaluable. Not only can language access professionals provide this feedback, but they can also offer guidance, insight, and data about the different communities the organization serves.   

For example, language access managers know where access points are located, and how and where providers are currently using interpreters. They also have a solid understanding of the language and demographic data, as well as any culturally based preferences different non-English-speaking populations might have when receiving care (i.e., whether certain communities prefer phone calls over text messages or emails).

The time is now

If you involve language access professionals in the planning from the beginning, the process will be easier.

A report by UCLA Health and UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative on COVID-19 and telehealth supports this sentiment, stating, “When designing and implementing health technology, culture, needs, and population demographics must be taken into account.” 

Integrating interpreting services, whether it’s audio or video, onto a platform that doesn’t inherently support it can be more challenging.

As healthcare continues to embrace telemedicine, inclusivity has to be intentional. If it’s not, health inequities for non-English speakers will only get worse. That’s why the time is now and the right people need to be an integral part of the conversation. 

And if you’re partnered with a language service provider like CLI who understands these challenges, has years of experience in remote interpreting, and can implement solutions quickly and seamlessly, you already have an advocate on your side to help you reduce language barriers in telemedicine both during and after the pandemic.

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