Interpreting in Healthcare: A Profession on the Move

Perhaps you can remember a world void of cell phones. Now they are a tool no person or organization can be without. When they first appeared, conditions were not right for their universal acceptance; however, within nine years they made the leap from being toys of the rich to being found in the pockets of almost everyone.

Innovation through technology and legislation is speeding up to keep pace with a rapidly evolving world.

In 2009 only 16 percent of U.S. hospitals were using Electronic Healthcare Records (EHRs), a system replacing paper records and making patient information readily available for review by healthcare professionals. Only four years later more than 60 percent of hospitals had incorporated EHRs with advanced functionality. Why? According to www.healthit.gov EHRs:

  • Improve quality and convenience of patient care
  • Increase patient participation in their care
  • Improve accuracy of diagnoses and health outcomes
  • Improve care coordination
  • Increase practice efficiencies and cost savings

Look closely enough at these benefits and you’ll notice an interesting correlation. They are also benefits associated with the appropriate use of interpreters, translated materials, and culturally competent care. Just as legislation paved the way for the rapid growth of the EHR as an essential tool in healthcare, it has also been the catalyst for the rapid acceleration of the need for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services. Learn more about CLAS Standards.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title VI specifically, set the stage by stating that individuals could not be discriminated against based on “national origin.” Since then, the refinement of legislation, government policy, and health care regulation has snowballed. The Joint Commission, one of the three top healthcare facility accreditation bodies in the U.S., released additional standards guaranteeing appropriate services for Limited English Proficient (LEP) patients. This year The Joint Commission published a Crosswalk paper linking these standards directly to Health and Human Services’ 15 CLAS standards. In addition, the Affordable Care Act, the most extensive healthcare reform in decades, gives teeth to the movement for appropriate care for LEP patients by specifically mandating the use of interpreters.

What started as an expensive luxury, the use of qualified interpreters, translated materials, and training culturally competent staff, are now services healthcare organizations can no longer afford to be without. Study after study demonstrates that these services generate better outcomes, dramatically increase patient satisfaction (an element tied to payments and penalties issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services), reduce hospital stays, and reduce organizational costs.

More and more we find larger hospitals forming language assistance departments staffed with qualified, even nationally certified medical interpreters whose sole purpose is to provide communication access for LEP patients and providers alike, safeguard quality of care, and reduce risk. Thousands more, working as staff and freelancers for language service agencies, pick up the majority of work done throughout the country, their value reinforced with every encounter. If you are one of these professionals, you are the next big thing. Over the next ten years the Bureau of Labor and Statistics sees the profession growing more than 40 percent, faster than any profession.

We are at the tipping point of massive improvements in culturally and linguistically appropriate services in healthcare and in the unique position of solidifying our role as interpreters by talking about our work and showing just how effective it is when performed well. Talk about our code of ethics, talk about our linguistic and sociocultural decision-making strategies, talk about our certifications and professional organizations, and talk about the fulfillment you personally feel being at the forefront of this most noble profession.

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