The Role of Interpreter Services in Healthcare

2_7_14 BlogIt’s hard to go more than a day without hearing news related to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – commonly referred to as “ObamaCare.” While the national spotlight remains squarely focused on enrollment, coverage policies and technical setbacks on, many outside of healthcare circles are less familiar with the influence of new federal mandates on interpretation services. Although the foundation for legal access to various languages was first created in the 1960s, properly providing interpretation services to Limited English Proficient (LEP) patients has been a challenge. Now, the power of the crowd is being leveraged by forward-looking facilities to provide unprecedented, equal and immediate access to even the least commonly spoken of languages.

Traditionally, and despite best efforts and best intentions, relatives and even strangers are often forced to interpret difficult medical jargon that’s hard for a layman to understand in English. Privacy laws are brushed aside and a mistake or misunderstanding can quickly escalate into a crisis. As a result, the ACA has placed renewed emphasis on accessibility to language in more than a dozen different sections. Those that fail to comply risk incurring serious penalties.

The need is great, too. Take California for example. The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research recently reported that approximately 36 percent of newly insured individuals eligible for coverage in the state through ACA are LEPs — compared that to only nine percent of LEP patients prior to the ACA enactment. That’s a substantial increase that administrators tasked with patient safety and satisfaction must consider when evaluating their current service offerings. States with the largest demand for foreign language include Texas, Arizona and Florida. Location and clientele or constituency do not matter; effectively meeting demand is just as important for the small, rural medical clinic as it is for the large, urban hospital in a demographically diverse city. Both must now be at the ready to interpret more than 300 languages to remain ACA compliant.

Two of the more common language interpretation approaches are in-person and telephonic. For years, facilities serving a less diverse population with an extremely small number of languages utilized on staff interpreters and multi-lingual doctors, nurses and support staff to meet this demand in ad hoc fashion. Others contracted with outside agencies to access an expanded pool of languages through locally-based, crowdsourced language specialists. While still a popular option, the need to now reliably support 300+ languages can escalate costs and demographic limitations often preclude rarer languages from being available. To serve a more diverse group, telephonic interpretations is often utilized, but many service providers remain unable to recruit and manage a crowd of pre-screened specialists capable of supporting some of the rarest, more difficult languages, such as Gujarati.

Many healthcare facilities are now performing a self-examination to ensure their interpretation infrastructure can respond to patient demands at a moment’s notice with professionals qualified to interpret the complex, nuanced medical terminology often shared by doctors in rapid fire fashion. For many, there is a new effort to uncover cost-efficient tools and partners to affordably offer expanded access to language services without increasing headcount or operating costs.

One popular option that is rapidly emerging is video interpretation. While not a new solution, video interpretation has typically been cost prohibitive, and the requisite equipment was simply too cumbersome to facilitate quick bedside usage. Traditionally, monitors, microphones and additional transmitting equipment would sit atop a large cart, requiring significant space within a hospital’s crammed emergency room.  Paying to maintain the network infrastructure needed to send and receive a signal was also a burden.

The proliferation of tablets and smartphones now allows service providers such as Lionbridge to combine the efficiency and speed of in-person interpretation with the affordability of telephonic interpretation. Video interpretation utilizes a smart crowd of remote translators, either at video call centers or even their own homes, available for a face-to-face discussion usually in about 30 seconds, all from a convenient handheld device. A doctor or nurse can select the patient’s preferred language from more than 300 available with no concern about geographic limitation or availability.

By carefully pre-screening and managing our pool of 25,000 interpreters, Lionbridge can ensure that a knowledgeable language specialist can quickly interpret sensitive medical discussions. Hospitals and other medical facilities can meet patient safety and satisfaction requirements without expanding headcount.

Crowdsourcing language service is just one example showcasing the power of the crowd to help the healthcare industry manage costs while more efficiently treating time-sensitive patient needs.

Another area in which crowdsourcing can play a big role is data collection and processing. Just think of the extra expense incurred by reviewing, classifying and organizing all of the new data on enrollment forms with full-time employees!  The rigors of maintaining compliance with ACA requirements is forcing the healthcare industry to identify and implement new approaches to more efficiently and reliably deliver daily responsibilities. Those who look to the crowd for these services will not only realize improved quality, but also significant cost savings. In an industry where every penny counts right now, that’s priceless.


Where do you see crowdsourcing helping the healthcare industry? What other challenges might the crowd help solve to improve healthcare services and keep costs down?

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