Language access during a pandemic: an essential human right |
Language access during a pandemic: an essential human right

The year 2020 was marked by an enormous flow of information on the coronavirus, which was both essential to human lives and ever-changing. Governments, language services organizations and medical institutions around the world were faced with a very real challenge: human lives depended on having equal access to information. Find out what was done to tackle this language access emergency and learn about ways to be prepared for a second wave of COVID-19.  

Why is Language Access important during a pandemic? 

Imagine being part of a Limited English Proficiency (LEP) community in an English-speaking country and trying to access medical information during the COVID-19 crisis? What about being a medical staff member with responsibility over an LEP patient’s health, with whom you cannot communicate? These scenarios can be extremely stressful in a “normal” medical situation, but the pandemic made it all the more traumatic as we were dealing with a very fast-spreading virus.  

From granting quick access to safety protocols and emergency procedures to publishing research results and findings, the role of quality language services became all the more important during the first few months of 2020. LEP patients flooded US hospitals with phone calls and visits, desperately trying to understand the situation. Medical management and staff realized they needed to liaise with language service providers and invest in equipment and training very quickly.  

The solutions put in place during 2020 were enough to prove the importance of language access in providing an equal service to all patients. They led to the realization that without language access, health equity was not possible for a large part of the population. But these lessons have left us with a new question regarding the future: What are the best practices for ensuring an equal access to information in a world undergoing a pandemic? The answers are being developed by experts around the world, but it has become abundantly clear that language access is crucial. 

How has COVID-19 affected language access? 

COVID-19 had a major impact on the way language services were perceived in the medical world, but its impact did not only touch on awareness and perception. From simple human interaction to the technology required for providing language services, COVID-19 turned everything into a challenge overnight.  

For LEP patients attending the medical facilities in person, over-the-phone interpreting had been a solution for many years. However, with the surge of COVID-19, there were obvious health risks involved in handing the telephone back-and-forth between the doctor or medical staff and their patients. This brought about the need to introduce new phone safety protocols in some cases, or to implement Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) devices instead.  

Also, telehealth became a widespread practice, and in order to implement it in a multicultural patient population, language services became essential. In short, both caregivers and language service providers have had to fully streamline their strategies and systems to adapt to the new normal. 

The main problem was that there wasn’t an existing structure to support such a large-scale public health emergency, so institutions and medical staff members had to find solutions as the emergency hit. Although great creativity and resourcefulness was shown, those were very stressful times. Thankfully, the way forward appears to be more hopeful. 

 Late in 2020, a bill was introduced in the US Senate to prompt all CDCs (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and federal agencies to “expand access to information” for LEP patients. If passed, this piece of legislation would require these centers to provide interpretive services for those patients. Also, it would be a requirement for them to translate COVID-19 materials into languages other than English, within seven days of their creation. This sets an important precedent, and it shows the way forward for all organizations holding a responsibility over community care and support during these times! 

Language access best practices for a second wave of COVID-19 

Along with creating legislation that protects marginalized communities and ensures equal access to information, there is more that can be done. Some of the language access best practices that health centers have already been implementing, include: 

  • On-site interpretation services provided by a language partner 
  • Over-the-phone interpretation  
  • Video remote interpreting  
  • Telehealth consultations with language access integration 
  • Translation of vital material to be published online or on-site 
  • Bilingual medical staff interpretation training  

In the COVID world, all of these practices need to keep expanding and developing, with special care that they adjust to actual community needs. Depending on the specific cases, it might be important to invest in more telephones and VRI devices, or perhaps it will only be a matter of creating better safety protocols for on-site interpreter. In either case, training medical staff on how to properly benefit from language access services at their disposal is a key stage in the process. 

Another important aspect to keep in mind is the need for quick and easy access. The recommendation here is to liaise with a language services partner that can customize their COVID-specific services for you, to ensure interpreting and translation practices are streamlined. It is important for doctors to reach interpreters as fast as possible, so systems that reduce call times and bureaucracy will be crucial. 

Also, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of relying on professional language services. We strongly advice health centers to never rely on non-professional interpretation from a patient’s relative or a bilingual staff member, for example. Even when dealing with a public health emergency such as COVID-19, the risks of misinterpretation are too high.  

And last but not least: supporting the passing of the Coronavirus Language Access Act will be essential to shift the public’s mindset towards language access equity in the medical system.