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As the World Health Organization joins the United States in calling an end to the pandemic, few want more than to move on from a time of unrelenting challenges, but that timing may not be so fortuitous when it comes to capturing its most important lessons for multilingual patient communications. If new reports are any indication, health authorities and researchers may only be starting to prove conclusively what advocates of patient centricity have long understood about the crucial link between language access and life and death outcomes in healthcare. And even where expected, their findings state in stark terms what a worldwide crisis can reveal about patient centricity, portending a wave of lessons still to come from some three years of global health data.

A recent study from the University of Minnesota brings home the severity of disconnect patients experience when unable to access information in their languages about readily accessible treatments: a twofold increase in the chance of their hospitalization or death with Covid-19. What’s more, while their focus was on vaccine adoption during the pandemic, the study’s authors “suspect this is true with most major diseases from infectious diseases (e.g. influenza) to non-communicable diseases (e.g. diabetes), and even to the provision of preventive care.”

To what does the disparity owe? While it is tempting to say coverage is simply lacking in written translation and oral interpreting, cultural factors when crossing languages present challenges that vary with each language pair and directly influence the quality of information that patients receive and act on. Engagement in sensitive areas of medicine must vastly exceed the basics of rote translation to ensure not only that patients in other languages are suggested to take actions such as vaccination, but able to make informed choices in their own interest as active participants. Ultimately, doing so is a task not only for medical professionals and leadership, but for linguists and language service providers supporting the health sector with cross-cultural communications.

Looking Beyond the Pandemic: Enhancing Multilingual Patient Communications

A pandemic era’s haste to quell a virus impacting all of humanity makes a practical matter out of what must other be taken as one of principle: language justice, or “a framework centering the fundamental right of people to communicate in their preferred language,” per coverage of the Minnesota study. Alongside the hypocritic oath to do no harm, translation in medical contexts must ultimately adopt the same ethos of working to capture information at no detriment to the recipient when their wellbeing hinges upon their understanding of it. And while doing so is the unique purview of medical linguists and service providers who undertake the work of adapting medical information across languages and cultures, it also relies on a systemic commitment to leveraging multilingual patient communications effectively on the part of care givers and facilities.

One problem that may be readily addressed is that the appropriate use of interpreters is still limited, even where they are engaged. (Imagine, for instance, that the interpreter is briefed incorrectly on a patient’s condition by a medical professional who has yet to communicate back and forth with that patient.) Another is that public health messages must be delivered in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner to be at all effective, even where technically correct, which may be as simple a matter of gathering a native linguist in person. Still, many health systems and public health agencies do not collect basic data on language preferences, or adopt stable communication policies or resources to leverage when needed. As the report notes, a common method for describing health disparities in the U.S. is in terms of racial and ethnic categories, but these offer little prescriptive information on how to address disparities within these traditional groupings at the level of individual communications.

In all, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many valuable lessons, and one of the most significant is the sheer degree of impact that multilingual patient communications have in health care today. As we mark its end, it is certainly time for a much-needed sigh of relief, but also for renewing our commitments to values such as language justice and the work ahead still to be done.

With a global network of medical translators and interpreters both domestically and in countries across the globe, CSOFT can help advance patient centric communication solutions in health care through our high-quality language services in 250 languages. To learn more about our services, visit