Digital communication tools can break down language barriers in healthcare

May 18, 2022

Language barriers have been shown to negatively impact important outcomes, including overall patient health, quality of care and patient and provider satisfaction. Language barriers can also exacerbate other health inequities, such as social or economic barriers, and impact engagement with healthcare in general as many patients feel like a burden or experience stigma and discrimination, such as a patient’s mother who said:

“I understand a little, but not that much…I don’t want to cause any trouble.”

Even though the Affordable Care Act and other federal laws require healthcare organizations to provide “meaningful access” for people with limited English proficiency, non-native English speakers still face challenges when accessing care. But an AHA study found that only 56% of hospitals offer translation services.

A recent survey of healthcare consumers, conducted by Olive, found non-native English speakers are overall less satisfied with their medical appointments than their native English-speaking peers — but that investing in digital, asynchronous communication tools may help close the language gap.

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Olive conducted a survey in March 2022 of 1,700 consumers who had at least one healthcare encounter during the past year to understand their experiences and expectations for digital communication with their care providers. Non-native English speakers were less satisfied with their most recent appointment experience, including scheduling, check-in/registration, time with their provider, check out, and billing compared to native speakers.

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Olive also found that non-native speakers are more likely to use things like online chat, text messaging with their provider and email, compared to native English speakers. People who speak another language at home seem to favor asynchronous forms of communication.

Patient engagement tools could help engage non-native speakers by making them more comfortable with the communication medium, likely due to their ability to take their time to interpret messages received and have more time to craft their own messages in return. Non-native English speakers make up 20% of the U.S. population, so by providing digital options such as texting, email, chat and online messaging, providers can help minimize language barriers, particularly when translation services are not an option.