Turning Obstacles Into Opportunities: Language Barriers and Health Care

Of the approximately 38 million U.S. residents speaking Spanish at home, 10.2 million of those residents are projected to enter the health care market for the first time under the Affordable Care Act.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Of the approximately 38 million U.S. residents speaking Spanish at home, 10.2 million of those residents are projected to enter the healthcare market for the first time under the Affordable Care Act, which ensures equitable access to all socio-economic groups. Because Hispanic families continue to make up the largest segment of the nation's uninsured population, we can anticipate a greater influx of Hispanic patients and a greater need to offer equitable service to those who may not speak English fluently.

These shifting demographics have elevated the need for our nation's healthcare professionals to be facile in the Spanish language now more than ever before. Yet, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article, in 2010, there were only 105 Spanish-speaking practicing physicians for every 100,000 Hispanic patients in the U.S. Glenn Martinez, Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at The Ohio State University and Chief Subject Matter Expert for Medical Spanish at Rosetta Stone, notes that 20 or 30 years ago, most healthcare professionals were first generation immigrants and were medically trained in Spanish in their country of origin; today, Hispanic health professionals are now second, third and even fourth generation immigrants who have received their medical training in English and have not been exposed to medical discourse in Spanish, despite speaking Spanish in the home. This presents a unique challenge, he adds.

As the Spanish-speaking population continues to grow, it's imperative the language divide be addressed. Comprehensive healthcare coverage has also become increasingly important among this particular demographic in light of diseases for which they are disproportionately at risk and that can be preventable in nature, if treated early such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cervical cancer.

In that same Los Angeles Times article, Dr. Gloria Sanchez, a professor and physician at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said that her predominantly Spanish-speaking patients "are in desperate need of care from providers who understand their words and their problems." In a focus group of patients in the Kaiser Permanente system of hospitals, most Spanish-speaking patients reported they only understood "approximately half" of what their doctors told them.

The disconnect is clear and the potential detrimental impact on people's lives is even clearer. With the number of Spanish-speaking physicians not keeping pace with the growing Spanish-speaking population, consequences of language and cultural barriers that exist between patients and health professionals are many and can lead to complications that not only compromise the quality of medical care, but also result in unnecessary expenses. Complications from improper drug dosage, increased diagnostic testing, higher rates of hospitalization and extended stays, increased number and severity of medical errors, and overall inferior care are all-too common occurrences stemming from existing language gaps.

The good news is healthcare providers are taking notice and beginning to take steps to address this escalating problem. Rosetta Stone recently partnered with experts from one of the nation's leading healthcare providers to create a customized language solution with personalized content, training, tutoring and evaluation tools developed to achieve the specific language-related objectives of health care providers and institutions. Released earlier this year, Advanced Spanish for Healthcare aims to transform language access in the healthcare industry, and we expect the program to be made available to approximately 100,000 healthcare professionals by the end of this year. The course itself features instruction on critical medical terminology, but also embodies a more holistic view of healthcare communication through a focus on professional register, cultural context and patient-centered communication strategies.

The program fills an important need for healthcare employees to better serve the growing Spanish-speaking population and aims to enable regulatory compliance, superior patient satisfaction scores, improved health outcomes, and a significant reduction in expenditures on outside language interpreter services.

This is but a first step and one we're proud to be a part of as the nation needs to shine a spotlight on this problem that, if addressed, can be solved and save lives. Language brings value to communities and affects all aspects of life, be it healthcare, education, politics, or employment. It is our goal to ensure that Advanced Spanish for Healthcare makes a positive difference in the lives of Hispanic patients and their families.

About Rosetta Stone
Rosetta Stone Inc. is dedicated to changing people's lives through the power of language and literacy education. The company's innovative, personalized language and reading programs drive positive learning outcomes in thousands of schools, businesses, government organizations and for millions of individual learners around the world.

Founded in 1992, Rosetta Stone pioneered the use of interactive software to accelerate language learning and is widely recognized today as the industry leader in providing effective language programs. The company's cloud-based programs allow users to learn online or on-the-go via tablet or smartphone, whether in a classroom, in a corporate setting, or in a personal learning environment. Rosetta Stone is also a leader in the literacy education space, helping millions of students build fundamental reading skills through its Lexia Learning division. Additionally, the company's Fit Brains business offers personalized brain training programs developed by neuroscientists and award-winning game designers to be fun and help keep your brain sharp.