Language barriers
in healthcare
and telehealth:
Can 5G-enabled
tech help?

Author: Megan Williams

Among the many benefits of telehealth, researchers have noted its ability to address structural barriers to healthcare access, such as transportation, inconvenient appointment times, childcare responsibilities, and regional and rural medical provider shortages. Yet, at the same time, there are concerns the advantages of telemedicine are not being realized equitably. One group which may not have benefited as much from telehealth: patients with limited or emerging English proficiency (LEP).

Language barriers in healthcare are of particular concern given that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 8.3% of the population speak English less than "very well." Experts at the University of Pennsylvania have advocated for greater investment in innovative multilingual digital health technology as a means to reduce these barriers. So, how can 5G-enabled tech help with this healthcare translation?

The impact of language barriers in healthcare

Studies show that LEP patients can have negative health outcomes due to the barriers they encounter in certain scenarios, such as:

  • Interacting with doctors and healthcare staff
  • Accessing interpreters
  • Addressing insurance concerns

Language barriers in healthcare have been found to reduce the satisfaction of both medical professionals and patients, lowering the quality of care and threatening patient safety because of miscommunication. Language barriers can result in costly readmissions and have also been tied to multi-million dollar malpractice cases and significant harm to patients and their families.

In recognition of this challenge in healthcare translation and as part of its Healthy People 2030 initiative, the Department of Health has the goal to "increase the proportion of adults with LEP who say their providers explain things clearly." However, research indicates many hospitals fail to comply with relevant federal regulations.

The important role of telehealth

Telemedicine has seen a bump in success in recent years in the healthcare industry. In the first quarter of 2022, 38% of patients received virtual care. While down from the heights of the pandemic when a majority of healthcare visits were virtual, it shows that telemedicine will continue to play a role in modern healthcare. This is confirmed by patient surveys, with over three-quarters of those who had received telehealth services saying they would prefer to continue receiving virtual care.

However, telehealth's benefits have not been shared widely. One study found that LEP patients were half as likely to use telehealth services than English-proficient patients. Separately, a University of California at San Francisco primary care clinic saw a drop in visits from non-English-speaking patients after their move to telehealth.

How technology can overcome language barriers in healthcare

While the barriers to telehealth access can be complex, healthcare translation options in telemedicine platforms offer the potential to address many of these challenges. The University of Pennsylvania made the following recommendations for maximizing digital health equity outcomes when it came to investing in a telehealth platform:

  • Support multilingual user interfaces, including non-Romance and right-to-left languages
  • Provide simple navigation steps; application downloads and account creation should be easy
  • Accommodate phone-based visits and sign language needs
  • Offer seamless integration with interpreters, including third-party vendors and sign language interpreters

BlueJeans Telehealth offers in-meeting integration with medical interpreter services covering 200+ languages, including American Sign Language. The platform is an easy-to-access, fully featured, purpose-built telehealth experience with no downloads required. It offers direct-to-connect functionality and integration to allow healthcare providers to seamlessly connect an interpreter at any time.

The low latency and high bandwidth that 5G can provide for advanced use cases is being described as a telemedicine game changer with its offers of exciting possibilities to help transform current translation technology in healthcare.

Building an inclusive, high-performing provider requires not only the intention to reduce language barriers in healthcare but also a modern technology infrastructure. Learn more about how Verizon's technology is driving critical advances in the patient experience and remote care.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.