Jul 18, 2020 - Health

Breaking the language barrier in telemedicine

An illustration of a microphone that looks like a pill

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As telemedicine use explodes during the pandemic, language interpretation services have lagged behind.

Why it matters: Telemedicine has been a vital lifeline, but if it's going to fully supplement conventional health care, it needs to be able to serve everyone — including people with little or no English skills.

Driving the news: A report this month by FAIR Health found telehealth claims increased by 8,336% nationally between April 2019 and April 2020, rising to 13% of all claims.

  • That increase was almost entirely due to the effects of the pandemic lockdown, which kept patients out of hospitals and doctors' offices.

Yes, but: The nearly 10% of the American population that has limited English proficiency risks being left behind by the telehealth boom, says Kristin Quinlan, the CEO of Certified Languages International. "Too few telehealth platforms are working to build in services for video interpretation."

  • Federal law mandates that any health care provider who received federal funding or reimbursement must provide language access services to patients with limited English proficiency.
  • But that's easier said than done in a country where residents speak hundreds of languages, Quinlan says.

Certified Languages International offers remote interpretation services that can be connected to telehealth calls — including in video, which is important for registering the body language of both providers and patients.

  • Minneapolis-based Allina Health has integrated interpretation into its telemedicine services, notes Frederick Bw’Ombongi, Allina's vice president for access management. "We don't want our most vulnerable patients to be left behind."

The bottom line: It's important to ensure that new technologies are designed to be fair before they become established — not after.

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