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Language Barriers to Healthcare Accessibility: How can technology improve healthcare accessibility?



As immigration becomes a worldwide phenomenon and populations become more diverse, many challenges arise. Healthcare professionals typically communicate with patients in the area’s dominant language. However, shifting populations display the need for a revision of expectations for the services provided by healthcare. A study published in the Oman Medical Journal found that 70.7% of patients with limited English knowledge feel that they do not have enough access to translation services in healthcare settings.


The ramifications of limited communication between a patient and a healthcare worker are substantial. When patients are not able to effectively communicate with their doctors, their issues may be misunderstood and therefore doctors may fail to properly address the patient’s concerns. This could result in lower quality of healthcare for those who are not able to communicate in the dominant language. Due to such occurrences, patients who require translation services are reluctant to use healthcare services compared to their counterparts who are fluent in the dominant language. Perceiving healthcare as inadequate to meet one’s needs could dissuade one from seeking healthcare which can result in a lower quality of life and untreated conditions.


The most common solution to this issue in most hospitals is to hire human translators. In the United States, medical translators must maintain confidentiality and refrain from inserting bias into any translated medical advice. These standards are developed and enforced by the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care. Medical translators are typically hired as simultaneous interpreters who are present in a room with a healthcare worker and a patient who requires translation services. Therefore, they must have a strong knowledge of medical terminology in the relevant languages. These roles are extremely specialized and many involve translators to be ready to work under short notice. 


Since medical translators need expertise in many areas and work on demand, there are a limited number of people who pursue medical translation as a career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were only 68,700 translators in the United States in 2022. Not all of these translators specialize in the medical field, so there are even fewer professionals available to work in the healthcare field. 


Due to this shortage, technology-based translation solutions are being explored to improve patient health and increase accessibility to healthcare. The program MediBabble currently translates in six languages (English, Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, Haitian Creole, and Mandarin) using a visual interface. Universal cues like shaking one’s head to represent “yes” or “no” are used to help doctors diagnose patients and communicate prescriptions. This intuitive software allows patients to easily communicate their symptoms and receive guidance. Another online tool used in healthcare settings to translate is Google Translate. It is a text-based program available in a wide range of languages and it is widely regarded as effective. Oman’s Ministry of Health found that such online translation tools increased patient satisfaction by 92%. Therefore, it is a worthy endeavor to develop translation tools to mitigate the current communication inequality.


Utilizing translation tools on a wider scale can provide a viable alternative to dealing with the shortage of human translators. Furthermore, these tools can be useful for countries to provide medical assistance or humanitarian aid to foreign nations, during emergencies like war or natural disasters, where it is difficult to know whether communication is possible with the local population. Overall, the rise in diverse populations has led to a growing language disconnect in the field of healthcare. Exploring technology-based solutions can combat the shortage of human translators in many countries and make healthcare more accessible to all.



Works Cited

Al Shamsi, Hilal, et al. “Implications of Language Barriers for Healthcare: A Systematic Review.” Oman Medical Journal, vol. 35, no. 2, 30 Apr. 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7201401/, https://doi.org/10.5001/omj.2020.40.

Bischoff, Alexander, and Kris Denhaerynck. “What Do Language Barriers Cost? An Exploratory Study among Asylum Seekers in Switzerland.” BMC Health Services Research, vol. 10, no. 1, 23 Aug. 2010, https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6963-10-248.

The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care Working Papers Series . A National Code Of Ethics For Interpreters In Health Care. 2004.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Interpreters and Translators : Occupational Outlook Handbook: : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Bls.gov, 25 Apr. 2018, www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/interpreters-and-translators.htm.

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