How Communication Technology Bridges the Language Gap in Healthcare

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With such a great number of languages, the U.S. healthcare scene faces some challenges with patient care. However, communication technology can certainly surmount these challenges.

A census in 2000 showed that more than 47 million in the U.S. speak a language at home other than English. The number of citizens who have limited English proficiency (LEP) increased from 4.8% in the 1990s to 8.1% by the year 2000. The number increased again to 21% by 2011. About 9% of this group did not speak English fluently.

“The number of citizens who have limited English proficiency (LEP) increased from 4.8% in the 1990s to 8.1% by the year 2000. The number increased again to 21% by 2011.”

The language barrier between patients and medical care staff can lead to incorrect diagnosis, medication and treatment; resulting in higher patient dissatisfaction and lower hospital revenue when patients find another facility. LEP patients may even avoid hospitals altogether due the fear of discrimination or lack of trust in hospital staff who don’t understand their real medical concerns.

Options Available for Patients with Limited English Proficiency

Title I of the 1964 Civil Rights Act demands equal federal financial assistance for everyone regardless of race, color or nationality. This includes aid for medical needs. Despite this mandate, lack of funding (both from the government and the hospital boards) prevents complete medical coverage for patients who are labeled with LEP. This is largely due to the fact that language interpreters are not included in medical insurance coverage. A survey among Medicaid agencies in 2002 showed that only nine states outlined a method which allow patients to claim reimbursement for translators.


“Options available for patients with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) include face-to-face translators, commercial interpreters, and language apps.”


Face-to-Face Interpreters

While translators for LEP patients may absolutely help to bridge the language gap, their services are typically expensive. Based on the site,, medical interpreters can charge as much as $13 to $30 per hour. Travel time is often included for translators who are paid on an on-call basis, since most medical institutions will not hire an in-house staff for this purpose, unless they have a significant number of non-English speaking patients. Translation costs are increased for no-show patients, since translators are paid just for showing up.

Commercial Interpreters

Call center-based interpreters, both telephone and video-based, are gaining popularity, although it’s a costlier option. The fee can reach $132 per hour, or $2.20 per minute. It works best for larger hospital facilities that accommodate a significantly higher number of LEP patients. The overall cost may be reduced by installing a call center type of setup at the hospital itself, employing paid staff to answer calls. Interpreters will be more productive this way, since there’s no need to be physically present to translate for patients.

Video-based interpretation is another form of this method. It closely resembles face-to-face interpretation but is still categorized under over-the-phone translation.

Although commercial interpreters help increase hospital revenue and improve patient satisfaction, this method exposes the latter’s confidential information, particularly medical records. Because of this, medical interpreters are bound to abide by Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act standards.

Technology and Language Apps

The Internet has made information more accessible, including materials for translating medical records. Aside from websites, there are applications which can be installed on tablets and smartphones in order to instantly translate spoken or written (in this case encoded/typed) words and phrases. There are even apps which are specifically designed for medical purposes.

“There are language apps which allow patients to simply tap a picture to express how they feel, and relay that information to an on-call nurse’s smartphone.”


One simple app allows bedridden patients to tap certain emotions (i.e., pictures of faces with different expressions) to convey what they feel at the moment. The app sends an alert to a nurse on standby for assistance. Another app provides the same experience, but with more options to choose from – like photos – and is also translated into several languages.

Hospital Translations

Some medical facilities have resorted to posting translated signs within the hospital itself. Basic signs in pictures or boards for directions to common areas – toilet, entrance/exit, nurse or information stations, and various rooms/departments are printed not only in English, but in other languages too. This low-tech approach encourages patients to feel welcome in the hospital. Once they gain confidence for consultation, all other possible hindrances, including language barriers can be more easily resolved.

Medical assistance isn’t exclusive to those who speak English. There are various options available to bridge the communication gap in health care, other than paying for medical interpreters. Technology allows more modern methods, such as telephone/video-based interpretation and language apps.

Tine Health

Like communication technology, Tine Health offers solutions to medical concerns – particularly, nurse training. Just-in-time training (JITT), for nurses is more accurate, effective, time sensitive and cost efficient. Refresher videos about new (or infrequently utilized) processes and devices are available for viewing while on the go, through a nurse’s smart phones or tablets, exactly when they’re needed the most.

Contact us to learn more about this innovative training technology!

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