News | April 21, 2008

Language Help for Patients Improves at New York Hospitals

April 22, 2008 - A report released last week said hospitals in New York are getting better at providing language assistance to non-English speaking patients, which is big problem in New York City where roughly 2 million people speak little or no English.

The report was conducted by the New York Immigration Coalition and other groups. It found that such assistance seems to have improved since 2006, when state health officials began regulating communication between hospitals and patients who did not speak English. However, the study’s authors said more still needs to be done, particularly regarding languages such as Korean, Haitian Creole, Russian, Arabic and Bengali.

State regulations require private and public hospitals in the state to provide skilled interpreters, translate important hospital forms into common languages and ensure patient care is not delayed because of language issues. Before the regulations were in place, it was not uncommon for hospitals to tell non-English speaking patients to bring their own interpreters.

For people who do not speak English, the language barrier makes it difficult for them to explain symptoms, understand doctors’ diagnoses and navigate the insurance system, advocates said. The barrier has lead to misdiagnoses, mistaken amputations, and even death, they said.

Forcing patients to rely on hand gestures or relatives, friends or other patients to translate medical information can lead to miscommunication and violates privacy laws.

“It is simply impossible to provide quality healthcare unless patients can communicate their symptoms clearly, understand their diagnosis and knowingly consent to medical procedures,” said Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, a civil rights organization that participated in the report.

The report, “Now We’re Talking,” was based on surveys conducted between October 2007 and February 2008 of 617 patients who speak Spanish or Korean, but not English. Officials stressed that the study was not scientific and provided only a snapshot. It showed that 79 percent of patients said they received help in their native language compared to the 29 percent in a survey performed before the 2006 regulations.

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