As the United States continues its rapid transformation from a monolingual, largely English-only society to a multi-lingual one with dozens – if not hundreds – if minority languages, service providers in both the public and private sectors have struggled to keep up with demand. While the recognition of the need for change exists on some level in many industries, taking the concrete steps necessary to meet the rising demand for multilingual services, and, in many cases, the legal requirements to provide these services, has proved far more difficult.
One sector that has found itself particularly hard-pressed to adapt rapidly to the changing face of the United States is the medical sector, from major hospitals to small clinics. In the medical sector, it is perhaps more vital than most fields that the complexities and challenges of catering to non-English speaking patients are outlined and understood, as lives are quite literally at stake. In additional to the moral implications of attempting to treat patients with whom one cannot adequately communicate, there are also major legal implications stemming from both Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, as well as more recent legislation included in the Affordable Care Act (popularly known as “Obamacare”).
As an expedient way to address patients’ linguistic needs, many healthcare providers rely on self-identified speakers of languages such as Spanish, Russian, Chinese, etc. This often means bringing in a nurse or doctor that is either a heritage speaker, of immigrant origin, or who has studied the language in school. Unsurprisingly, the potential for disaster when using such an untested and uncertain technique is very high.
This article examines the current state of the healthcare industry as it grapples with the ever-increasing demand for multilingual services. In addition to looking at the challenges themselves, the article also focuses on a couple of organizations – the International Medical Interpreters Association and the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters – that are dedicated to helping the medical community by establishing guidelines to ensure that the industry uses properly trained and competent medical interpreters. Our article explores not only the ongoing effort to get more medical interpreters trained, but also to get healthcare providers to understand that even support staff must possess an adequate level of proficiency in another language in order for compliance with Title VI. We also spoke with Federal Compliance Consulting, an organization that works to raise awareness of organizations’ legal obligations for further insights on what gains have been made, and what remains to be done.
This piece makes a compelling read as it focuses on a single sector of our society – albeit a major one – as it struggles to evolve along with the nation around it. While there have been undeniably some important, tangible advances, much remains to be done to ensure that all patients, English-speaking or not, can be truly cared for.