The demand for language diversity in healthcare

February 22, 2021

Tiffany Belcher

In a growing world, clear and effective communication is more important than ever before. Students and graduates who embrace language diversity will be awash with opportunities. Healthcare organizations across the United States value medical professionals with bilingual abilities. This is because bilingual healthcare workers can take the quick action necessary to save lives.  

An example of why language diversity in healthcare is essential 

It was a typical workday in Spokane Washington when a Russian-speaking patient arrived at the urgent care. He seemed to have difficulty navigating to the front desk, and when he got there the receptionist noticed he had trouble finding the items in his wallet. While speaking frantically in Russian, the patient started shaking and pointing to his eyes. As he turned white, the receptionist urgently called a medical assistant from the nursing station. Fortunately, the medical assistant spoke Russian and was able to bring the patient to an exam room right away and gather more information.  

While the rest of the team scrambled to activate the translation equipment, the Russian-speaking patient told the medical assistant that when he awoke that morning and could not see well. He was very nauseated and was shaking uncontrollably. A family member brought him to the urgent care. The Russian-speaking medical assistant located the patient’s medical record and saw that he was diabetic. The patient appeared to be getting weaker by the second and the medical assistant knew he had to act fast.  

After a brief discussion with the doctor, the medical assistant tested the patient’s blood sugar which was a soaring 591. Because of the medical assistant’s ability to communicate with the patient quickly and accurately, the doctor was able to deliver a life-saving dose of insulin before an interpreter was connected by phone. The patient was then transferred to the emergency room and later admitted to the hospital for an extended stay.  

The growing need for language diversity 

Between 2014 and 2019 the U.S. welcomed an average of 529,041 new immigrants each year. This is a nearly 12% increase from 2008-2013 when the U.S. welcomed an average of 471,903 new immigrants per year. While the U.S. accepts foreigners from over 200 regions and countries, the largest percentage of them come from America’s geographical neighbor. A annual average of 74,827 of these new immigrants were from Mexico, making up 14.14% of the immigrant population on average (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2021).   

More than half of the new arrivals were women, averaging 258,392 female immigrants per year, which includes 105,547 women who aged 20-39, that is, of prime childbearing age (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2021). Children born to these mothers will likely experience English as a second language, suggesting that the need for translators will be greater than predictions made from immigration alone. 

U.S. regions with a high population of foreign-speaking residents tend to be the eastern states, states near the southern borders, and cities with dense populations (Modern Language Association, 2021). But as the U.S. population grows and shifts, the diversity of spoken languages is moving inward and spreading out. It won’t be long before a foreign language is common in every U.S. city.   

When a patient with limited English proficiency accesses a hospital or healthcare organization, they are entitled to a translator.

Patient rights

Legal immigrants who meet certain age and income requirements have rightful access to federal programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, food assistance, CHIP, WIC, and more. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act mandates that federal agencies implement systems to improve meaningful access to individuals with limited English proficiency (U.S. Department of Justice, 2021). This means that each government agency must provide adequate translation services.  

 These mandates extend to organizations that receive federal grants and funding. Many healthcare organizations are non-profit and fall into this category. When a patient with limited English proficiency accesses a hospital or healthcare organization, they are entitled to a translator. This is true whether access is made by phone or in person. Healthcare organizations may provide this access in many effective ways. These can include an in-person interpreter or a translator by phone.    

Employer responsibility

Most healthcare employers recognize the value of language diversity. However, if you browse job listings for healthcare positions across the United States, you may notice that some organizations have the preferred qualification of being bilingual while other organizations have no preference. This may mislead the job candidate into thinking that one organization is more inclusive than the other. This is not the case. The size and complexity of the healthcare organization may eliminate the need for bilingual staff. 

Many large complex healthcare organizations invest in infrastructure to accommodate foreign languages. Such services include on-demand video interpreter services and pre-paid phone interpretation services. Common patient education pamphlets can be pre-printed in the region’s common languages. There are even electronic medical record systems with translation features that provide information in the patient’s preferred language.   

When a healthcare organization invests in translation services to a great extent, they don’t require the medical staff to translate for the patient also. Therefore, the preference for bilingual skills can be removed from the job listing. This doesn’t mean bilingual skills are not valuable.  Smaller organizations with fewer translation resources may invest more in bilingual staff. This allows the organization to accommodate a diverse population without the additional use of resources. In this case, a bilingual applicant is the preferred candidate.   

Some states not only require their government agencies to hire a specific number of bilingual staff, but they also grant them a pay differential.

The value of language diversity 

Clear and effective communication is invaluable, but it’s not black and white. In a growing world, communication is more colorful and complex than ever before. Students and graduates who embrace this complexity will have a professional advantage. National and global opportunities await emerging professionals who speak more than one language. Some states not only require their government agencies to hire a specific amount of bilingual staff, but they also grant them a pay differential. This is true for the state of California, and several others (State of California, 2018). 

Many healthcare organizations strongly discourage patients from using a friend or family member to translate. This is because professional translators, as well as bilingual healthcare workers, have extensive training on medical terminology. The patient’s friends and family members may be unfamiliar with the unique dialog that takes place in healthcare settings. Professional interpreters have been trained to interpret exactly what the healthcare worker is saying without any biased or misleading verbiage.  

The level of clarity in translations required in a healthcare setting is worth the expense of investing in bilingual staff or paying for professional translation services. Because the healthcare professional may not know what the interpreter is saying, there is some security in using a professional service. There is even more security in hiring a bilingual healthcare worker. Communication is clearest when it comes directly from the source.   

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Once graduated, bilingual applicants can use the following tips to aid in successfully securing a job: 

  • Search for jobs where you know bilingual skills are needed. Foreign language speakers can use their experience to find employers who embrace unique language skills. Return to places where you received interpretation services and inquire about job openings. Additionally, graduates can use the MLA Language Map to find regions with dense populations of foreign languages. Researching organizations in these regions will lead job applicants to potential employers.  
  • Apply to jobs where being bilingual is preferred. Don’t underestimate the value of a preferred qualification. When you see that being bilingual is preferred, this means a recruiter will consider you above all other applicants who meet only the basic qualifications. Seek these positions out and don’t be afraid to apply even if you don’t meet all of the other preferred qualifications.  
  • Make a video resume. Many employers require their candidates to communicate clearly and effectively. However, communication skills can be difficult to assess in a resume and cover letter alone. Especially since anyone can pay to have these documents professionally composed. A video resume allows the candidate to display their communication skills, including their bilingual skills. Making a video on YouTube is free, and there’s no special equipment required. You can do it using your computer or smart phone. The video can be attached to almost any digital document using an unlisted link. This allows the applicant to control who views the video. See this English-speaking video as an example of a video resume.
  • Talk-up your bilingual skills. Don’t sell yourself short. Let employers know that your language skills bring value to their organization. Don’t be afraid to give examples of how your unique language abilities have benefited you or others in the past. Discuss how you plan to use your bilingual skills to deliver high quality, compassionate patient care in the future. 

English speaking students can also expand their language skills

A different barrier exists for English-speaking students. Mono-language English graduates may have limited global opportunities. English-only applicants may even be turned down for jobs because the employer found a bilingual candidate instead. The good news is that as language diversity expands in our country, opportunities to learn a new language will expand as well.  

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For students who students who wish to expand their language skills, the following tips may be helpful:

  • Take advantage of free opportunities. For high school students near graduation, squeeze in one last language class if there is still time. This free opportunity to obtain valuable language skills may never come so easily again. For working students, some employers will reimburse workers or even pay upfront for language classes. These opportunities are great, especially if the expense of a language class is a barrier to expanding language skills. For non-working adults, some local minority support groups may offer free language sessions, so keep your eyes and ears open. These opportunities can be rare, so take advantage of them when possible. 
  • Use your resources. Students who are already enrolled in a college program may have access to additional funds for language learning. Some students also receive overpayments from grants and loans. Use these resources to expand language skills when possible. Language classes may also be covered as part of your tuition, so don’t be afraid to inquire. 
  • Learn the technology. Ask your school or employer if you can receive training on translation equipment. Take time to learn how to use it. Know which languages are supported by the technology and find resources for the languages that are not supported. If you’ve mastered a technology, showcase this skill on your resume. This will prove to employers that you embrace language diversity.  
  • Language tools – many textbooks and websites have translation features that help students learn keywords and terms in another language. While these tools aren’t great to become fluent conversationalists, they can teach you how to communicate key terms in urgent situations. 
  • Language immersion –  some schools may offer language immersion and study abroad opportunities. If these options aren’t right for you, you can immerse yourself in cultures and communities that speak a foreign language. Watch foreign videos, listen to foreign audio. Ask if you can observe interpreter sessions. Practice your skills with people who are fluent in the language, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek clarification about your pronunciation.  

Modern Language Association (2021) MLA Language Map

State of California (2018) Bilingual Pay. Office of Human Resources.  

United States Department of Homeland Security (2021) LPR Yearbook Tables 8-11 Expanded.  

United States Department of Justice (2021) Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  

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