Sharing Best Practices for Effective Multilingual Communication in Healthcare
Americans have always had a complex relationship with science and medicine, no matter what community they belong to. As scientific knowledge accelerates year after year, there is always a compulsion toward science-denial trailing behind it. There are certainly mysterious and intangible psychological forces that drive some humans to deny the most widely-accepted foundations of science and medicine, like vaccines, or the idea that Earth is a round planet. Some of these inclinations can’t be stopped by direct means, as the desire to seek power by reinventing reality is a stubborn part of human nature.
One can see how these anti-science movements will frustrate the process of vaccinating the public against Covid-19. The anti-vaxxer movement was strong before all the conspiracies around the Pandemic came into being. Changing the minds of people with fringe beliefs will be hard, but there is a much more achievable way to spread trust in Covid-19 vaccines. Some groups adopt false beliefs because they lack access to good information because it is not easily available in a language they understand. Improving communication to communities that are under-informed due to linguistic barriers is an entirely tangible way to help promote immunity to the virus in a large group of people.
Spanish speakers form the largest linguistic minority in the United States. According to a Pew Research analysis in 2013, 32% of Hispanics reported that they spoke English at a level which they considered to be less than “very well” or otherwise did not speak it at all. While firm data surrounding the reaction of different communities to the Covid-19 Pandemic will take time to process, anecdotal evidence is immediately available from Spanish-speaking doctors. In an NPR article from December of 2020 a family physician named Dr. Eva Galvez says “What often happens is when people don't have access to accurate information, they rely on other platforms, word of mouth, social media, and those are often not accurate.” She goes on further to share her belief that anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies eroded the relationship between authorities and the Hispanic community. Similarly, in an NBC article a Spanish-speaking doctor said he had been “hearing skepticism about the vaccines because of the lack of reliable information, especially in Spanish.”
Despite the fact that vaccine skepticism is alive and well among Americans of all ethnicities, a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that Latinos of all ages in the United States were 20-30% less likely than non-Hispanic white Americans to have received all kinds of vaccines. After adding this general tendency toward fewer vaccinations among Hispanic residents of the United States to the broader belief in conspiracies, we can certainly expect this demographic to be less thoroughly vaccinated to Covid-19 as 2021 progresses.
The U.S. Government does make efforts to provide materials in Spanish for patients who aren’t able to meaningfully absorb information in English. Espanol.cdc.gov has a page dedicated to Covid-19 vaccines in Spanish. There is also vaccines.gov/es, which does offer generalized information on vaccines in Spanish, however this site only offers its “vaccine finder” tool in English.
Even with the availability of these resources, most Hispanic Americans and Hispanic residents will first encounter solid information at clinics or hospitals. This means local clinics and hospitals have the greatest opportunity to correct misinformation or get sound information to people first. Yet again, doctors and their practices are on the front line of information and communication, in addition to offering treatment. Having materials readily available in Spanish in clinics around the country will lend credibility to the information they contain, and therefore make accurate materials more competitive against flashy or sensationalistic misinformation that spreads online or by word of mouth. Even clinics and facilities that don’t focus on Covid-19 have the chance to benefit anyone who visits them by making this information available, both in their clinic, and through their websites and social media presence.
Medical translation is key when making sure crucial information reaches its target audience. Materials in English will be easy enough for clinics to create in-house, or otherwise delegate to a third party and review. Materials in Spanish or other minority languages can be tricky to create, and are hard to review if you or your staff don’t speak the language they contain. Medical translation services are the ideal resource for translating these materials because medical translators will have professional experience in science and medicine, and employ certain practices to assure that their translations are medically accurate, consistent, as well as culturally appropriate. If your practice or organization needs to provide highly specific information about Covid-19 that is unique to the services you offer, a medical translation service will likely be necessary. As for clinics that do not deal with Covid-19 directly, standardized materials like those provided by the government or other organizations may be a sufficient alternative to customized medical translation, and can be easily printed and distributed to your patients, and hopefully they in turn will spread it beyond.
Many forms of science denial are as baffling as they are stubborn. Steering people away from dangerous beliefs, like vaccine avoidance, will be a long-term effort. In a way, we can be grateful that some problems associated with misinformation have actionable solutions that are much more straightforward. Making sure clear, accurate, and up-to-date information is available in Spanish, as well as other minority languages, is a way all healthcare organizations can fight to defeat the pandemic right now, in the hopes that people who otherwise would have refused vaccination will make the choice to protect themselves instead, as well as those around them.