Standards Issued for Healthcare Interpreter Services

By Kristina Fiore, Staff Writer, MedPage Today
Published: February 19, 2011

All U.S. healthcare organizations must be able to talk with patients about their care in a language they can understand, according to new Joint Commission standards.

That involves hiring interpreters, ensuring proper training, identifying patient communication needs, and keeping a written policy that emphasizes respect of cultural values, according to a white paper written by the Commission “in conjunction with Language Line Services” — a telephone-based interpretation service.

The white paper notes that the company’s “customer regulatory readiness program” — “much of which is free” — includes consultation, support, and instructional materials.

The standards are being implemented in a one-year pilot phase, according to the Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization that surveys and accredits hospitals.

More patients with limited English proficiency are seeking treatment at U.S. healthcare institutions, and these facilities have tried to accommodate them by adding bilingual staff, hiring interpreters, and using telephone and video conferencing interpretation services, according to the white paper.

Yet they haven’t been able to keep pace with the “growing needs of an increasingly diverse patient community” — nearly 3,000 unexpected deaths, catastrophic injuries, and other sentinel events have been tied to communication breakdowns, the report said.

In addition, patients with limited English proficiency “suffer a greater percentage of adverse events as a result of such language breakdowns,” the report noted.

This happens because hospitals typically rely on patients’ family members and untrained bilingual staff for translation, the agency says.

So the Joint Commission created a set of standards for ensuring that all patients can receive appropriate information about their care, which calls for healthcare organizations to:

  • Define and confirm staff interpreters‘ qualifications
  • Document interpreters‘ proficiency and training
  • Identify each patient’s communication needs
  • Keep a written policy on patients’ rights that includes being respectful of cultural and personal values

The white paper offers tips for ensuring compliance with the new Joint Commission standards:

  • Implement a language plan that establishes access at every patient point of contact
  • Implement ongoing training and education for interpreters
  • Update existing protocols to incorporate the language standards

The Joint Commission says it will conduct unscheduled accreditation surveys every three years to monitor compliance with the standards.

Hospitals that come up short risk jeopardizing the accreditation process, incurring unexpected costs, and taxing limited resources, the report said.

It noted that the greatest consequence of failing to enforce the standards is the “potential delivery of substandard care that could lead to irreversible harm caused solely by the inability to communicate.”

Primary source: Joint Commission
Source reference:
Arocha O, Moore DY “The new Joint Commission standards for patient-centered communication” Joint Commission 2011.