Improving Patient Access to Care Through Multilingual Support

September 30, 2021 | Stericycle Communication Solutions

Language barriers are critical determinants for a patient’s access to care. Take this scenario as an example:

Before a parent leaves for work, their child begins to have a cough. That evening, the parent returns home and is distressed to discover that the child now has a high fever. What is the natural next step? Call the pediatrician? Look for answers online? Walk next door and ask a neighbor for help? Rush to the emergency room?

Our Health & Wellness Campaigns encourage patient engagement by communicating  with patients in their preferred language. 

Our minds may quickly leap to one or more of the answers above, but the best available answer may be less clear depending on the parent’s English language proficiency.

Language Proficiency is a Key Determinant of Patient Access to Care

English language proficiency has long been regarded as a key social determinant of health. For the one in 11 Americans who have limited English language proficiency, language barriers can keep them from interacting with the healthcare industry and accessing care. Patients for whom English is not their first language and who have limited English language proficiency may experience poor patient-provider communication or have unequal opportunities for positive, consistent patient engagement.

Specifically, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study, these individuals face challenges interacting with front office staff, medical personnel, and healthcare organizations’ representatives over the phone. These challenges come on top of care access barriers that patients often face regardless of language preference – things like distance to services, lack of convenient appointments, and poor care coordination.

Ultimately, gaps in communication can result in a tendency to disengage with the medical institution and increase the potential for patients to access higher-acuity care in place of low-acuity care management. To address this, providers must reduce barriers in care and create stronger bonds with all patients throughout their patient journey.

Health systems often rely on interpreters or multilingual staff to help patients during their appointments, but there are other ways to help these patients. Here are three ways to improve access to care with patients who have low or no English proficiency. 

Online Appointment Scheduling Options for Multilingual Patients

Patients searching for care or providers online will be doing so in languages other than English. Increase your multilingual support with on-page translation and links to support teams who can speak many languages.  Also, ensure your online scheduling solution has a multilingual capability for diverse patient populations.

A recent analysis of care access barriers for Spanish-speaking patients revealed that 65 percent of respondents had a computer or a tablet, 87 percent had internet access, and 87 percent had a smartphone. Some respondents acknowledged that communication technology would only be useful if it were offered in Spanish, reinforcing the need for multilingual support across all channels and in each step of the patient journey.

When searching for care in their preferred language, healthcare consumers may want to filter their search results and see the languages spoken by providers. Having an advanced filtering capability built into your online scheduling solution can enhance care continuity and reduce the need for onsite translation services.

New research indicates that “improving patient primary care access for patients with limited English proficiency may be as simple as connecting that patient with a provider who speaks the same language as them, helping to build stronger patient-provider relationships, instill trust, and ultimately cut emergency department (ED) visits.”

Multilingual Medical Call Center

Your patients with limited or no English language proficiency likely have questions about their care plans, medications, diagnoses, appointment instructions, and more.  The reality is that they either aren’t asking these questions or aren’t receiving the information they are seeking because of their language barrier.

One way to solve this challenge is by providing multilingual inbound and outbound call coverage for all your needs, including appointment scheduling, referral scheduling, class and event registration, and telehealth appointment support. Having a multilingual medical call center can allow your patients to get the answers they need and stay informed, all without burdening your staff.

Additionally, with the pandemic continuing, now is an important time to look at implementing multilingual medical call centers to address questions around COVID-19 and vaccines. Stericycle’s Senior Vice President, Matt Dickson, discussed this in a guest article on KevinMD:

“As COVID cases continue to rise, establishing dedicated COVID-19 multilingual hotlines to answer patient questions is one of the most effective ways to keep patients informed without burdening your staff with increased call volumes. Agents can answer questions related to the new variants, the vaccine and its efficacy, reports of breakthrough cases, as well as questions on vaccinating children, while also reiterating safety protocols that are implemented within the practice. The current climate has made transparency and accuracy in patient education and communication more important than ever.”

Multilingual Patient Outreach Can Improve Access to Care

Communicate with patients in their preferred language in all forms of patient outreach and communication. Automated text, email, professional voice, and live agent messages about appointment reminders, appointment instructions, diagnostic order fulfillment, medications, and more can be customized to patients’ preferred language and help to ensure that patients receive the communications and services they need.

While interpreters, bilingual staff members, and family members are often used to translate and communicate with patients, there is a chance patients still don’t fully understand. In fact, according to a study by the Annals of Emergency Medicine, relying on non-medical interpreters such as family members can increase the chances of symptom misunderstandings, create unnecessary complications, and in some cases, increase the likelihood of a patient’s disability or death.

By communicating with patients in their preferred language, you can ensure they understand your instructions, diagnosis, and care plan. Even more, it empowers them to take more control of their health and engage with your organization more frequently—ultimately leading to more positive health outcomes.

Addressing Language Barriers Will Improve Patient Access to Care

In an increasingly diverse healthcare industry, language barriers and limited English proficiency should be considered when reviewing and designing your patient journeys.

Integrating multilingual support into your online scheduling, medical call centers, and patient outreach can improve access to care, lead to more positive health outcomes, and help optimize the patient experience for all of your patient populations.

To learn more about how our multilingual support can help you drive patient access, action, and adherence, visit our Health & Wellness Campaigns webpage.

Target patients using clinical and non-clinical live voice, direct mail, and digital communications in the patient’s preferred language. Learn More.

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