US residents speak at least 329 languages. In some US cities less
than 60% of the population speaks English. About 32 million of us speak a
language other than English at home. If your service population is not diverse
now, it will be soon. Pew Research
projects the US Spanish speaking population will triple by 2050, and the Asian population will double. Success
in improving the health of ethnic populations will substantially influence the
future health of America as a whole.
Healthcare organizations have been working to develop their
capacity to address language barriers and cultural differences, but it’s
hard to make progress when the challenge is increasing along with the
complexity of treatments and healthcare delivery and financing systems. Non-
English speakers still face substantial communication barriers at almost every
level of the health care system.
show that communication barriers have a negative impact on health, discourage
use of preventive services, and increase costs of treatment through unnecessary
testing, delayed diagnosis, extended treatment times, and misinterpreted
instructions. Without information that they can understand and use in their
everyday lives, patients cannot engage in self-care or self-management. In
short, they cannot take responsibility for their health and be partners in treatment,
as effective care now requires.
In most cases, provider
organizations and insurers have the means to overcome language barriers. But
current practice in most communities still reflects an assumption that it is
the patients' obligation to make themselves understood, to ask appropriate
questions and to correctly interpret and comply with instructions. In most
instances, this assumption is wrong as a matter of law. Federal and state civil
rights laws and Medicaid regulations require access to linguistically
appropriate care. These laws are the basis for accreditation standards that
require providers and insurers to position themselves for our multicultural future.
Studies show that print
materials, particularly in combination with brief counseling, can increase
recall, compliance, and behavior changes; and reduce consultations regarding discomforts
that could be self-managed. Health information is increasingly available and
accessed online, through mobile devices and virtual patient educators. Still a
clear message from research participants
is that written information should always be available, even in the
presence of multiple other media.
While they are not a total
solution, CLAMs remain the necessary foundation for a comprehensive
communication effort, and an obvious starting place to promote health literacy.
Organizations serving diverse populations will need to hone a process to
develop and test English language materials, and to adapt essential proven
materials for non-English speakers.
More on that next time. Stay tuned.