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  • Wally Lan

How Language Barriers Affect Healthcare Quality

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

As we learn more and more about COVID-19 each day, statistics teach us that minority populations are disproportionately affected by the virus. This pandemic brought to light, more than ever, the pervasive healthcare disparities in our nation, ones that have always existed and remain a public health problem to date. And now is a good time to sit down and ask ourselves what the causes of these disparities are. Admittedly, this is a convoluted, multifactorial issue. But today, I would like to look at one relatable issue I have recognized—language barriers.

Regardless of what language one speaks, everybody deserves basic right to quality healthcare, and the healthcare disadvantages that they face due to language barriers is, in short, ridiculously unjust.

Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, a predominantly immigrant area comprised of largely Hispanics and Asians, I could not help but notice the injustices in our healthcare system. Being an immigrant is challenging. A large percentage of these people are still learning the English language, yet they are responsible for navigating their own healthcare. On paper, they may be properly covered under Medicare or Medicaid. While these immigrants technically have the coverage, they still face barriers to access that coverage. Even many Americans fluent in English struggle with understanding their premiums, deductibles, and copayments. Imagine the challenges that non-fluent speakers face when trying to care for their own family’s health.

However, I have noticed that many doctors and health companies do work to alleviate the language barriers, and that is indeed very respectable. But these isolated, local actions are not enough. It takes more of a broad, national effort to allow everyone to become familiar with how to utilize the system.

Take a look at Kaiser Permanente. Kaiser works to integrate many brochures and translators for those whose first language is not English. And again, I admire their efforts. But the twist is that Kaiser is also one of the healthcare companies with higher premiums—the cost you pay for your health insurance. Under the healthcare system, people also have to pay for other costs such as deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance. Now ask again. Would a brochure and phone translator truly help people understand why they have to pay for all these costs? On paper, these people receive “proper healthcare” and end up becoming another statistic for how the ACA expanded health insurance for over 20 million people. The truth is that this is far from “equal healthcare opportunities.”

The issue of language barrier in the healthcare system extends beyond brochures and high premiums. I would now like to talk about people who are still learning English and end up medically misbilled. You cannot expect someone who is not even familiar with how payments in the system work to understand that they were overcharged by their healthcare providers. These people have no pre-estimate for standard payment costs. They came from other countries where healthcare operates under a completely different system. When a healthcare provider and insurance company miscommunicate and overcharges non-native speakers, a translator and brochure will only help so much in terms of having them understand why the prices are so high.

I recognize the inequity in our healthcare system cannot be explained by just one factor. Language barrier is one of the many other causes of healthcare disparity. We must continue staying politically proactive to ensure that those who are part of a minority group receive the same quality of healthcare as the more privileged individuals in our nation, especially during this time of crisis. It is important for people in both political and medical fields—politicians, nurses, physicians, or caregivers—to lobby for change in America.

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