Language Barriers in Healthcare Quality

Language Barriers in Healthcare Quality

In 2007, surgeons in a Berlin hospital completed 47 faulty knee-joint[1] replacement surgeries as a result of an inaccurate translation. The English label instructed physicians to use non-modular cement, which was mistakenly translated to the German word for ‘non-cemented’, and the replacements were done without use of cement. Language plays a key role in the health care system; communication is crucial to provide quality services and appropriate care.

Currently, there is an estimated 25 million people in the US who are limited English proficient (LEP). The relationship between ability to speak English and quality of health care received can be evidenced by LEP patients with diminished quality and access to health services, poorer health outcomes and even death. Despite the fact that English is the mother tongue for most US households, many patients and families have trouble understanding health information without difficulty. This is because health information can often be quite technical and unintelligible to the untrained eye.

So, what it is to have a language barrier? The inability to effectively communicate and be understood in a language you do not speak, or doing so poorly. Moreover, imagine needing medical attention in that environment, for example in the birth of a newborn and feeling vulnerable and stressful where language is at the heart of communication and any exchange of information.

Language barriers present a critical challenge to both providers and patients in ensuring meaningful access to quality care. Sometimes, because of their inability to communicate, LEP patients face discrimination or they leave without an accurate diagnosis. There is plenty of research demonstrating that language barriers contribute to health disparities and that language access is rather a privilege than a right.

Section 1557 is the civil rights provision of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability in certain health programs and activities. By 2015[2] a third of national malpractice claims involving a communication failure were due to a language barrier. There were 7,149 cases accounting for $1.7 billion of total incurred losses from irreparable patient harm due to miscommunications.

When we talk about removing language barriers in the health care system, we need to focus on quality language access that creates a safer environment for patients as well as less risk for providers. There is a need to pay special attention to those vulnerable populations in your community and their special needs. By providing an environment that is welcoming to people regardless of English proficiency, healthcare providers mitigate risk and provide true encompassing care focused on equality.

Here at Idea Translations, we created a list of critical documents that need to be translated by all healthcare providers:

  1. Notices for free language assistance
  2. Notices of eligibility criteria for services
  3. Informed consent documents
  4. Intake forms that have clinical consequences
  5. Discharge instructions
  6. Complaint forms

Sometimes, hospitals use bilingual staff to translate these and other documents into other languages (Spanish, Arabic, etc.). Beware, this is not a risk-free strategy. Bilingual staff might be proficient on the target language but they are not trained language experts and might suffer from the nuisances of translation.

Implementing a language strategy can be easier than you think. Our unique pay-as-you-use model and document translation technology platform will help you save costs, streamline document exchange and monitor translations in a few clicks.

We created this simple and cost-effective technology solution because we understand that providing language access should be simple and affordable. If you want to learn more about how to implement a language strategy, please feel free to contact us at


[1] 2015 CRICO Strategies Benchmarking Report, Malpractice Risks in Communication Failures

multi ethnic at hospital


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