Immigrants fueling demand for interpreters

December 11, 2006

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, every 31 seconds a limited-English speaker enters the United States. For the approximately 48 million residents who speak a language other than English at home, that language barrier looms large when they visit an emergency room or are admitted to a hospital.

To make matters worse for health-care providers, there appears to be a link between adverse events and a patient's inability to speak English. And that's not good news considering that 80% of hospitals treat patients with limited English proficiency.

The call to the 800-number is free, usage is billed in one-minute increments, and charges begin when the interpreter comes on the line.

For patients, Language Line acts as a 24/7 medical emergency call center. In addition to working with hospitals and health systems, the company has contracted with more than 7,500 community pharmacies nationwide, including CVS and Supervalu (formerly Albertsons) as well as independents. Provenzano noted that in partnership with pharmacies, Language Line provides "in-store, in-language signage." A patient who speaks Mandarin, for example, will see a list of languages. All the patient has to do is point to Mandarin, and the R.Ph. knows to get in touch with an interpreter who speaks Mandarin.

The demand for interpreters is growing at a fever pitch, and it's not just concern for patient safety and an influx of non-English-speaking patients that's driving demand. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires that any entity receiving government funding must provide language access. In fact, several hospitals have been sued because the facility did not have a language program in place and harm was done to a patient. In addition, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations requires that hospitals have language access programs.

Another driver, according to Provenzano, is the aging population. With a growing portion of the country's population over age 65, many patients are likely to be Medicare beneficiaries who speak little if any English.

Language Line Services is adding some new products to its line, including a video service that allows hospitalized patients to see and hear a language interpreter via a mobile video screen at the bedside.