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Study: Language barriers pose health risks

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REDWOOD CITY — Chinese, Tongan and other non-English speakers in the county are putting off or skipping medical appointments, sometimes resulting in emergency room visits, due to language barriers, a new county report reveals.

The report, Linguistic Access Study, released by the health department last week is among the first of its kind in the state and offers a starting point on how to best meet limited English proficient patients’ needs, according to the county health department. The report recommends: 1) conducting a countywide self-assessment of language services by health care organizations, 2) creating uniform policies regarding how to serve LEP patients, 3)expanding translation services, 4) providing professional translation training for bilingual staff and 5) developing a plan to improve linguistic access for affected groups.

“When you add a language barrier to pain, it becomes nearly impossible for patients to communicate with their primary care physician,” said Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson, who has pushed to close the disparities in medical treatment in the county.

Health officials plan to immediately begin weighing programs to improve outreach and translation for the most isolated communities, including Chinese, Tongan and Russian speakers in particular, Srija Srinivasan of the County Health Department said.

An estimated 53,000 LEP residents currently reside in San Mateo County, Srinivasan said.

The report is based on a survey of 150 non-English speakers, interviews with about 400 community and county health organization staff, and site visits, officials said.

“Among Chinese [survey] participants, lack of linguistic access caused them to seek care in San Francisco, rely on home or drugstore remedies, or delay treatment,” according to the report. Such delays aren’t uncommon when a patient knows that the staff at her physician’s office does not speak her language and her family members are unable to take time off work to accompany and translate for her, Srinivasan.

In another example cited in the report, a Tongan-speaking patient did not take the medication in the manner prescribed because he did not understand the English instructions, Srinivasan said.

Eleni Aho, of the Tongan Interfaith Council, said Monday she wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings. “We sometimes feel that our concerns are not taken into consideration, especially with the language problem in the county.”

Long wait times, poor customer service and alienated patients were also among the study’s findings, which identified social andeconomic factors as contributing to linguistic barriers.

On the upside, health organizations in the county are doing a much better job offering language services for Spanish and Tagalog speakers, according to the report.

A new video interpreter system, currently being used on a limited basis at the San Mateo Medical Center, is hoped to be expanded for use throughout the clinics, Medical Center CEO Nancy Steiger told supervisors. Using the system, doctors can tap into live interpreters who speak a handful of languages — including Cambodian, Hindi, Hmong, Spanish and Tongan — on portable video monitors in minutes with the tap of a button, officials said.


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