In-depth: The difficulties of receiving medical care if you don't speak English

Posted at 6:04 PM, Aug 20, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — Imagine having to get medical attention in a language that you’re not familiar with or maybe you’re still learning. That’s the reality for many people here in the Bay Area.

One local, Vietnamese woman spoke with ABC Action News in-depth reporter Anthony Hill about the difficulties of receiving medical services in her own language, and Anthony’s also digging deeper into the rights patients have for language services at hospitals that receive government funding.

The population of our country is growing every day. There are more than 330-million people that call the United States home, but with an increase in population, there’s also an increase in the number of languages spoken.

Florida is one of the top states that have large populations of people that don’t speak English as a first language and as it turns out, hospitals are being tasked with providing equitable, medical services for people who speak other languages. However, some say, not all hospitals are keeping up with the pace of demand.

According to a Census survey, about 30% of Floridians are speakers of a non-English language. That’s higher than the national average which is 22%.

Thu Truong is from Vietnam and she’s been living in the United States for three years. Still learning English, she’s thankful to be able to receive medical attention in a language she knows and understands.

Thanh-Xuan Le is Thu’s midwife and has been seeing her since her first trimester. Le told me, she met Thu just like how she meets the majority of her Vietnamese patients. “She was referred to me by her primary care provider,” said Le.

Le will be translating for Thu in this report. “She would have to get friends or family or her younger sister who speak English a little bit better, but with their work and school, they have to take off to take her. So, it’s inconvenient for her to have to use family or friends as translators,” Le.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act requires hospitals that receive federal funding to provide language services for patients who need them. “While hospitals are obligated by law to provide language services if they receive federal dollars, i.e., Medicaid and Medicare dollars reimbursement, the onus is on the patient to demand them,” said Dr. Melody Schiaffino, Professor of public health at San Diego State University. Dr. Schiaffino has extensively studied access to health care for those who don’t speak English as a first language.

She says hospitals that don't provide language services place a burden on the ones that do because patients who are non-English speakers end up having to go to the same hospitals. In addition, many of those hospitals that cater to non-English speakers may not be close to where the patients live, creating inequities on who has access to decent medical services.

She also says hospitals lacking language services, end up being a lose-lose situation for both the hospital and the patient.“If I can’t understand what you need, I’m going to do my diagnostic test. So, they’re going to be more invasive, probably, because I really want to get to the bottom of what’s wrong with you and you’re not able to tell me. So, they add up. The cost adds up. So, that also costs the hospital more money and that’s not going to be very pleasant for the patient.”

As for the Vietnamese family that’s expecting a new baby. Well, the husband is just happy to know without any uncertainty due to language barriers that their baby is doing just fine. “For her husband here, he feels a peace of mind knowing that the provider can explain to him more about her health and the baby’s health.”