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Akron Univ. School of Law

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Language Barriers

The truly terrific and now recently graduated Jim Tomasewski points out this article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled, "Language Barriers to Health Care," by Dr. Glenn Flores.
Here is a brief excerpt:

Inadequate communication can have tragic consequences: in one case, the misinterpretation of a single word led to a patient's delayed care and preventable quadriplegia.1 A Spanish-speaking 18-year-old had stumbled into his girlfriend's home, told her he was "intoxicado," and collapsed. When the girlfriend and her mother repeated the term, the non–Spanish-speaking paramedics took it to mean "intoxicated"; the intended meaning was "nauseated." After more than 36 hours in the hospital being worked up for a drug overdose, the comatose patient was reevaluated and given a diagnosis of intracerebellar hematoma with brain-stem compression and a subdural hematoma secondary to a ruptured artery. (The hospital ended up paying a $71 million malpractice settlement.) 

In 1998, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services issued a memorandum regarding the prohibition, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, against discrimination on the basis of national origin — which affects persons with limited English proficiency. This memorandum states that the denial or delay of medical care because of language barriers constitutes discrimination and requires that recipients of Medicaid or Medicare funds provide adequate language assistance to patients with limited English proficiency. In 2000, a presidential executive order was issued on improving such persons' access to services. Thirteen states currently provide third-party reimbursement (through Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program) for interpreter services. Unfortunately, most of the states containing the largest numbers of patients with limited English proficiency have not followed suit, sometimes citing concerns about costs. Although the Office for Civil Rights issued guidelines in 2003 that seem to allow health care facilities to opt out of providing language services if their costs are too burdensome, Title VI provides no such exemption. 

Ad hoc interpreters, including family members, friends, untrained members of the support staff, and strangers found in waiting rooms or on the street, are commonly used in clinical encounters. But such interpreters are considerably more likely than professional interpreters to commit errors that may have adverse clinical consequences.1,5 Ad hoc interpreters are also unlikely to have had training in medical terminology and confidentiality; their priorities sometimes conflict with those of patients; and their presence may inhibit discussions regarding sensitive issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse, psychiatric illness, and sexually transmitted diseases.5 It is especially risky to have children interpret, since they are unlikely to have a full command of two languages or of medical terminology; they frequently make errors of clinical consequence; and they are particularly likely to avoid sensitive issues.1,5 Given the documented risks associated with the use of ad hoc interpreters, it is of concern that the 2003 guidance from the Office for Civil Rights states that such use "may be appropriate." 

Later this year, the California legislature will consider a bill prohibiting state-funded organizations from using children younger than 15 years of age as medical interpreters. Leland Yee, the California speaker pro tempore, proposed the bill, prompted by his experiences interpreting for his mother and, later, as a child psychologist. The bill requires organizations receiving state funding to establish a procedure for "providing competent interpretation services that does not involve the use of children." 

Although this legislation may emerge as a state model, as an unfunded mandate, it will have limited power to improve care. Perhaps the time has come for payers to be required to reimburse providers for interpreter services. The provision of adequate language services results in optimal communication, patient satisfaction, outcomes, resource use, and patient safety.1,5 A 2002 report from the Office of Management and Budget estimated that it would cost, on average, only $4.04 (0.5 percent) more per physician visit to provide all U.S. patients who have limited English proficiency with appropriate language services for emergency-department, inpatient, outpatient, and dental visits. This seems like a small price to pay to ensure safe, high-quality health care for 49.6 million Americans.

The entire piece is well worth a read.

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