Spanish for Healthcare: Health Outcome Challenges for Hispanics

Spanish for Healthcare, Latinos, Affordable Care ActLatino families make up the largest segment of the uninsured population in the American healthcare system, with 10.2 million people uninsured. Since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in 2013, more than 2.5 million have become insured.

Although providing insurance to more families was the primary goal of the law, this influx—which is only expected to grow with each enrollment period—stresses a system that is grossly unprepared to service the Hispanic community.

The largest of these challenges is in the disconnect between a Spanish-speaking patient and their doctor, who is overwhelmingly likely to speak English. In the US, there are only 105 Latino physicians for every 100,000 Latino patients. The solution for many doctors and hospitals is translation services through telephone. These services can cost up to $2 per minute, becoming a major cost center for healthcare providers.

What happens when the language divide is too great?

When a patient and their doctor miscommunicate, the effects can be quite profound. Aside from the costs to healthcare providers for translation services, there are also costs spread across the system for higher rates of readmission.

As you know, doctors prescribe drugs or post-visit care for many ailments. If those directions are misunderstood, the patient is much more likely to readmit themselves for further care—often to the nearest emergency rooms. ER visits tend to be costlier than primary care visits, further taxing the system.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, a focus group made up of Hispanic patients in the Kaiser Permanente system of hospitals reporting that they only understood “about half” of what their doctors tell them.

Then there is the added liability.

A foundational medical malpractice case involved a south Florida man who was improperly treated for a drug overdose when he was actually bleeding in his brain. The heart of the issue was a delay in ordering a neurologist consult because the attending physicians misunderstood the Spanish word “intoxicado” to mean intoxicated, when among the Cuban community it means something close to poisoned. The man believed he had extreme food poisoning before entering a coma because of the bleed. If the doctors had not believed in their overdose theory, there was enough time to attend to the bleed. As it stands, the man is now a quadriplegic. The following lawsuit was worth $71 million.

Even in daily medical practice, language skills can be a benefit. There is an overall feeling of distrust among the Hispanic community towards healthcare services, primarily because of poor service in the past. Closing the language gap can lead to better care and more Hispanics taking advantage of a healthcare system to which many more families have access.

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