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Sharing Best Practices for Effective Multilingual Communication in Healthcare

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To Translate, or not to Translate, that is the Question

by María Apgar | August 31, 2020 | access compliance | Medical Translation | 2 Min read

Walking the streets of any busy city in the US, you can hear conversations in multiple languages. This is perhaps the clearest way to see the diversity of the country’s population. The second most spoken language after English is Spanish. An estimated 41 million people speak Spanish at home, and chances are that sooner or later a patient who only speaks Spanish will show up at your practice. Not to panic, there are several ways to communicate and obtain the information you require to diagnose, provide a treatment plan, and follow up with this patient.

Some medical providers resort to ingenious communication methods that range from hiring bilingual staff to using translation apps and everything in between. Although these efforts are commendable, any method for addressing language barriers does need to consider medical access laws. The most relevant ones are the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and Protected Health Information (PHI). In addition, healthcare organizations that receive federal funds from Medicaid or Medicare are expected to provide services in the language of the patient according to Title VI of the US Civil Rights Act.

According to these laws, translations of several medical documents must be provided to maintain compliance. These include patient information forms and questionnaires, rights and responsibility forms, release of information, consent to treatment, consent to immunize, consent to procedures, instructions for patients, progress documents, intake forms with clinical consequences, waivers, and complaints.

English to Spanish translations should be ideally performed by a professional healthcare translation service. In fact, section 1557 of the ACA requires that translators be qualified. Having a translation agency take care of your language requirements is cheaper than you might think, and will definitely grant you more peace of mind. Translation agencies specializing in healthcare have strict quality assurance processes that guarantee that medical translations are accurate, have the right reading level, and avoid cultural misunderstandings. In addition, they understand HIPAA laws and can ensure compliance with the latest standards.

Besides complying with medical access laws, well-translated vital documents can help you provide a better standard of care and ensure that patients receive the necessary information to make informed decisions, adhere to treatments, and avoid adverse events. The following table can give you an idea of documents that will help provide thorough coverage from triage to discharge.


Triage Admissions Consultation Testing Pharmacy Discharge
Permission to treat Notice of Patient Rights Informed consent Consent for lab work Medication information Discharge instructions
Insurance information HIPAA Notification Referrals for aftercare Insurance Information to transfer
Financial documents Treatment plan Medication education
Medication education Patient education

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