The importance of language and interpreter needs in healthcare goes beyond communication and has a significant impact on health outcomes. This has been demonstrated in a recent analysis published in JAMA Network Open by faculty from the University of Minnesota and the HealthPartners Institute.
The study analyzed Covid-19 vaccine uptake rates and related hospitalizations and deaths in a large health care system in Minnesota and Wisconsin that serves a multilingual population. The data ranges from December 2020 to March 2022.
The study included 851,410 individuals, of whom 4% had a language preference other than English (LPOE), and 3% indicated limited English proficiency (LEP), as measured by the need for an interpreter.
More specifically, patients with LPOE and LEP experienced delays in receiving their first vaccine dose and were approximately twice as likely to be hospitalized or die due to Covid-19 compared to English-speaking patients. LEP patients had even higher rates of hospitalization and death related to Covid-19.
More Than a Communication Tool
According to the study authors, healthcare providers should view language needs as an essential aspect of patient care and provide access to interpreters as necessary to ensure equitable and culturally competent care.
The lead author, Nasreen Quadri, MD, an adjunct assistant professor affiliated with the University of Minnesota Medical School and physician collaborator with the National Resource Center for Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants, emphasizes that “in a healthcare setting, language is more than a communication tool;” it is a means of conveying respect and essential for upholding patients’ dignity and autonomy over their care.
To address health disparities and barriers to care for LPOE and LEP populations, a language justice framework should be implemented to collect data on language preferences and interpreter needs. Such a framework will allow for the redistribution of resources — such as translated materials and medical interpreter services — and provide actionable information during public health emergencies.
According to William Stauffer, MD, a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and director of Human Migration and Health at the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility, “routine data collection of a patient’s preferred language and interpreter needs should be standard practice and could provide key information on improving health equity in the U.S.”
*This study was conducted as part of the faculty’s work for the National Resource Center for Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants, with funding provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the International Organization for Migration.