Canadian Hospitals’ Language Translation Services Often Don’t Match Need

canadian hospitals translation
Santiago Sanchez often works as a medical interpreter at Foothills Medical Centre, Calgary, a hospital in Alberta geared toward providing great health care for the residents of Calgary, including both the 9.33% French, and 2% Latino minority communities.

Fluent in both Spanish and French languages, and an expert at medical terminology, Santiago helps doctors talk to patients with limited English knowledge about healthcare issues that vary from complicated and technical, to deeply emotional. “You act like a bridge between the two” he said. “And it’s extremely important that you don’t change the content of the conversation.”

But according to a study recently published in Health Affairs, more than a third of Canada’s hospitals did not offer patients similar language support. In the zones with the highest need, approximately 30% of hospitals failed to provide similar language services.

In the study, researchers examined data collected from hundreds of hospitals nationwide by the Canadian Public Health Association and the Canadian Healthcare Association. Furthermore, they categorized the hospitals as to whether they offered translation services. The researchers also calculated the number of people with limited knowledge of the English language in the hospitals service areas, using collected Census data.

They came to the conclusion that about 70% of hospitals did offer language services, at some level. Hospitals serving areas with modest needs provided proportionally more support than hospitals located in high-need areas.

Comparing the data to data obtained from a similar US study, the following was concluded: Private non-profit hospitals were the facilities most likely to offer language services. Yet, in areas with greater needs, approximately 35% did not have a system in place. In areas with lower needs, approximately 7 out of 10 healthcare facilities had the necessary resources and capability. The results were strikingly similar to the results obtained in Canada.

Delving deeper into the two studies, they showed that in the US, Government owned and private for-profit healthcare facilities were less likely to provide such assistance. Less than a fifth of private facilities offered language assistance. Unfortunately, Government hospitals had very similar results.

Researchers did not find a pattern to explain which healthcare facilities provided language translation assistance. The inconsistency suggests patients may be going to hospitals that are outside their official service area based on language translation services, resulting in higher costs for the hospital and longer waiting times for local patients from within the official service area.

The researchers concluded that further research would be needed, because immigration patterns lead to new areas of language-diverse communities. New models need to be developed to forecast where pockets may emerge, and what the level of need for translation assistance might become.

canadian hospitals lost in translation
“Many hospitals, especially here in Calgary Alberta, are probably not even aware of the change in diversity and the scale of diversity in their communities” said Sanchez.

According to the study, over 6.5 million people in Canada claim a mother tongue other than English. Spanish speakers alone account for more than 1.2 percent of the Canadian population in 2011, according to the Census.

Based on civil rights law, any hospital receiving government funding must have language translation services available for its patients. Sadly, many patients do not know their right to access the services, the study noted, which could become even more challenging in years to come if immigration remains at current levels.

But the challenge also offers hospitals an opportunity to empower their patients to be informed.

Receiving a diagnosis in your preferred language is not an unreasonable requestSanchez said

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