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Avoiding Language Discrimination in Health Care

Healthcare providers frequently interact with people from different backgrounds and cultures and are bound to encounter language barriers when engaging non-English speaking patients. Fortunately, there are ways physicians can overcome this challenge to ensure they provide healthcare services without discrimination. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (through the HHS Office for Civil Rights) mandates healthcare providers to take the necessary measures to ensure that no patient is denied access to healthcare because of the language barrier. They also enforce laws in this regard as well as address cases of patient discrimination. 

All in all, the primary responsibility lies on healthcare providers, and here we highlight ways they can overcome language barriers in the course of duty;

Provide access to interpreters 

Working with a language service provider can be quite helpful in solving language barrier challenges in healthcare institutions. In California, for example, the Hispanic population is about 39 percent, but only 5 percent of healthcare providers are Hispanic. In such cases, a language service provider can help to ease communication to ensure optimal service delivery. 

In cases where a physician partially understands the language and the services being rendered are minor, an over-the-phone translation can help to make communication possible. This goes a long way in preventing miscommunication and hence ensuring that the patient is satisfied with the services they receive.          

Understand customer language preferences 

Rather than assuming a patient understands the language, ask them about their preferred language of communication even if they are multilingual. Although not obligated by the law, there are effective ways to confirm whether a patient understands you; 

• Use language identification cards and let the patient choose the language they are proficient in

• Ask them to repeat treatment and discharge information using their own words

• Let them clarify if they need an interpreter

In the U.S., where the population is diverse, healthcare providers should not take chances when offering services to Limited English Proficient (LEP) patients. Understanding the language preferences of patients does not only guarantee quality service provision, but also ensures you are in compliance with the law.

Avoid using family members as translators 

Using family members of patients as interpreters should be avoided at all costs as it often leads to confidentiality issues, not to mention it can result in complications with the law in case something goes wrong. Moreover, they are unfamiliar with medical terminologies, which can lead to mistranslation that can have dangerous consequences. 

While here, it is also advisable to avoid using bilingual members of staff who are passively familiar with the language, especially if the information is rather technical. However, you can make compromises if the individual has a strong command of the language and is conversant with medical terms.  

Determine when video interpreting is appropriate     

While face to face interpretation is preferable, there are instances where video interpreting may be the better option. In order for video interpreting to be effective,  you should use high-quality video and audio. It is equally important to make sure each speaker has a headset and can be heard clearly to avoid critical information being missed.

Typically, technical information requires detailed explanation; therefore, you have to be extra careful when relying on video interpreting to ensure you capture all the information shared. For small healthcare providers, investing in quality technology can help to facilitate the process of video interpreting. 

Provide translated written documents  

Healthcare providers should always make sure they have necessary written documents in the language the patient understands. This is especially important for vital documents, which can include:

  • forms of consent
  • complaint forms
  • admission forms

Patients are better able to make sound decisions regarding their health when they are fully informed about every critical step of the services they are receiving.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandates healthcare providers to develop protocols and procedures to facilitate health care for all. Remember, you are liable for any issues that arise from misunderstandings, and this should prompt you to provide the necessary material to enhance healthcare for your patients. 

Inform patients of their rights

As a physician, you have an obligation to make sure your patients are fully aware of their rights to a competent interpreter. Many healthcare institutions post signs translated into different languages (based on the languages commonly encountered) in intake areas so that patients can see and act on them accordingly. 

For instance, Social Security offers interpretation services in a range of languages on their website as well as in offices. This helps to inform clients of their rights, which is a requisite for ensuring you provide quality services while being in compliance with the law. 

Don't just be bilingual, be bicultural      

Bridging the language barrier in the healthcare environment is not all about seeking interpreters when they are needed; being familiar with different cultures is essential in understanding how they approach medical problems, which helps you to provide better care. This is integral in supporting doctor-patient interaction as patients can open up on more personal issues they might be dealing with. 

Worth noting here is providing a friendly environment in healthcare institutions is not the responsibility of providers alone, but all parties, from the people making appointments to those giving prescriptions. In any case, when a patient feels welcome, they are more confident with services offered and tend to show better compliance to doctor's suggestions and follow-ups. 

Ensure compliance 

Healthcare providers have a huge responsibility toward their patients. For this reason, always strive to provide optimal services for the betterment of their health. You can achieve this by providing language access services every time they are needed. Moreover, refrain from charging your LEP patients for providing them with an interpreter. Lastly, always be prompt in addressing the needs of your patients, whether in emergency situations or not. 


Overcoming language barriers in healthcare is not an option but rather a necessity. By adopting these practices, you are able to prevent language discrimination, and consequently, prevent disasters associated with miscommunication. 

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