Healthcare industry: how to hire interpreters and translators for LEP patients assistance

The number of people with limited English skills in the United States, plus the growing variety of languages they speak, confront the medical industry with the challenge of providing quality and equal services to all its patients. And it’s not just about clinical care. The goal is to transform all communication resources (brochures, forms, websites, apps, kiosks) into a meaningful experience across channels. In this article, we will cover the requirements that a language service provider (LSP) has to meet to assist the healthcare industry.

But, first: what’s an LEP patient? The acronym LEP stands for “Limited English Proficiency” and it refers to any person aged five and older who reported speaking English less than “very well” as classified by the US Census Bureau. According to 2018 data, more than 25.6 million people were considered LEP, accounting for 9 percent of the overall US population.

Some clinicians may think that if the patient or any family member speaks enough English to get by, asking for an interpreter’s help can be superfluous. But this assumption carries many risks. Any medical treatment, even a simple consultation, involves technical information and a series of complex interactions, that sometimes can be challenging even for a native speaker. If we add to that a language barrier, any misunderstanding can end quickly in a life-threatening situation. 

Moreover, a family member serving as an interpreter may act, intentionally or not, against the principle of impartiality needed in this context. Whether he or she is unaware of the ethical responsibility involved in the task due to the lack of training or is knowingly trying to influence the course of action based on personal beliefs and prejudices, the patient’s autonomy and well-being are at stake.

To avoid potential risks and any additional burden to LEPs patients and their families, the best solution for healthcare providers is to have a cohesive and tailored language program, developed by an experienced language service provider. Although sometimes hiring freelance translators and interpreters can be enough, a company specialized in the medical industry can be a better choice for quality improvement and costs saving. For selecting the right fit, there are five key factors to take into consideration: experience and training of the professionals, quality assurance, the confidentiality of information, flexibility for managing projects, and the ability to scale up. Let’s delve into each category.

Experience and training of the professionals

As in any other technical area, handling medical translation and interpreting requires mastering the source and target languages, and the specific knowledge of the field as well.

Therefore, the professionals assigned to a medical translation or interpreting project need to have specific training and proven experience in managing the specialized terms in the context of use. Their academic background must include a native level of language proficiency, in-depth cultural knowledge of the source and target languages, and adequate skills in using specialized glossaries and translation software. 

On interpreting, and due to the sensitivity of the issues discussed by clinicians and patients, it is especially valued that the experts show, also, excellent communication skills.

Quality assurance

One of the main differences between hiring a language service provider and a group of freelancers is quality assurance. An LSP not only performs an initial evaluation aimed to commission adequately qualified professionals to the projects, but also implements efficient control processes for error detection, readability testing, and overall quality improvement.

A quality management system often takes form as a multi-step verification process. An expert or a group of experts translate the documents, other professionals review and edit the project, and then a third team proofreads it.

Although at first sight, the process may seem time-consuming, any mistranslation on medical documentation can result in health or life hazard, or trigger a lawsuit or financial claims. Therefore, ensuring total accuracy standards must be the main priority of any health-related project. 

Another benefit of hiring an LSP that adds up to quality improvement is the creation of translation memories (a database with previous translations) and termbases (a glossary of each company’s commonly used terms). These two assets are shared, expanded, and curated by the translation teams over time and allow them to maintain linguistic consistency on different translation projects, saving time and costs.

Confidentiality of information

When handling medical data, translators and interpreters must observe a strict confidentiality policy at all times. In addition to the service level agreement, the professionals or LSP must be willing to sign a confidentiality agreement and prove an extensive knowledge of the healthcare industry regulations about personal information management.

As an advantage, LSPs usually offer custom digital platforms that ensure end-to-end security of the resources provided by the client. Also, they have a team of IT experts around the clock to solve any technical issues.

Flexibility in project management

A language strategy program requires a team of varied professionals, including but not limited to, translators, interpreters, project managers, and technicians of every media channel involved. Each project demands the collaboration of a highly dynamic network to fulfill the customer’s needs, and the project management role becomes critical.

With that in mind, it is recommended for the language service provider to have a flexible and adaptive approach to time frames, scope, and budget requirements to meet each project’s specific goals. Also, the LSP should have tools to facilitate the customer’s follow-up and feedback, and processes to implement the suggestions or improvements in real-time.

Ability to scale up

Last but not least, there are corporate management related issues to discuss. Ideally, hiring any service should be a strategy matter and be tied up to the organization’s goals. In that mindset, some questions arise: Would this person or business be a good cultural fit? How will this partnership add up to the company’s objectives? Is hiring this person or business a tactical and immediate solution, or is it projected on a long-term alliance of shared growth?

Any healthcare organization carries out a significant number of complex tasks daily in order to provide quality and meaningful assistance to all its patients. And in the case of LEP patients, all these tasks come together through translators and interpreters to convey life and health-related information. Considering the critical value of this communication process, the professionals in charge of providing it should be prepared to perform consistently and respond to any contingency.

Consequently, hiring language professionals should take into account the possibility of rising demand for volume, smaller time frames, and different languages. For that, and due to its structure and ability to scale up, an LSP is the preferred option.

Three takeaways

1 Caring for LEP patients encompasses a lot more than interpreting: it is a commitment to transform every piece of medical communication into a meaningful health experience for the patients and their families. On that ground, delegating interpreting and translation tasks to non-professionals not only diminishes this experience but also -and due to the critical nature of the services provided- can result in raised costs, claims, or even a life-threatening situation.

2  There are five key factors to take into consideration to find the right fit when seeking for linguistic help: 

-The professionals must have proper training on the medical subject and demonstrated experience working for the industry. Plus, the interpreters must exhibit exceptional communication skills. 

-There needs to be a quality management system with a multi-step verification process to assure total accuracy, term consistency, and good readability of the texts.

-It is necessary to sign a confidentiality agreement and verify that the information and resources the client provides are end-to-end secured through the entire process.

-To provide an adequate response to the complexity of the medical scenario, the language services team needs to work with flexible and agile project management.

-Considering the possibility of a demand for higher volume, shortest response time, or new languages, the provider needs to prove it has a scalable structure.

3 Translators and interpreters that handle medical information become a critical asset in a delicate communication process. Hiring language professionals to assist LEP patients, whether it is freelancers or a language service provider, must be a strategic decision. To make the most of it, the selection must gravitate towards professionals or companies that assure the achievement not only of the language-related tasks but of the client’s business goals. 

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