October 25, 2016
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Feds Urge Health Care Organizations To Break Language Access Barriers

Joint Commission, HHS Team Up in Language Access Education Effort

Amid growing concerns about racial, ethnic and language disparities in health care, The Joint Commission and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights have released a video, entitled "Improving Patient-Provider Communication," which supports language access in health care organizations. The Joint Commission and HHS agree that effective communication is a critical aspect of safe, quality patient care. Many patients of varying circumstances require alternative communication methods, and this new video will help health care organizations determine the best methods of care for meeting these communication needs.

Health care organizations face challenges to accommodate increasingly diverse patient populations -- more than 28 million people with hearing loss (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimate) and approximately 47 million people who speak a language other than English (according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Language access remains a matter of national importance. The video identifies tools that health care organizations can use to build effective language access programs.

With many competing priorities in health care, the video explains why particular attention should be paid to Federal civil rights standards and The Joint Commission's accreditation standards pertaining to effective communication and language access. The video also addresses the obligations of health care organizations with respect to the translation of written documents. The video clarifies that HHS and The Joint Commission do not endorse one specific approach to ensuring language access, but recommend using resources and modes of interpretation that are accessible, in working order, and are put into use when necessary to serve the needs of patients and their families.

"Ineffective communication between patients and providers can result in misdiagnosis, inappropriate treatment or medication errors," says Amy Wilson-Stronks, project director in the Division of Standards and Survey Methods and principal investigator for Hospitals, Language and Culture study at The Joint Commission.  "When a provider cannot communicate effectively about a disease or treatment, or when a patient cannot describe their illness, they lack the basic connection needed to result in appropriate care. Appropriate communication is necessary for ensuring quality and safety in health care."

HHS Office for Civil Rights Director Georgina Verdugo lauds the video for highlighting the rights of patients in getting access to crucial medical services. "Our goal is to ensure that all individuals, including those with limited English proficiency and those deaf or hard of hearing, have access to safe, quality health care, without facing unlawful discrimination," says Director Verdugo.  "Effective communication between the patient and the health care professional is essential to achieving that goal."

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs that receive federal funds; a failure to provide language access services for Limited English Proficient (LEP) persons may be a form of discrimination on the basis of national origin. Similarly, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects the rights of individuals with disabilities, requires health care organizations that receive federal funds to provide effective communication for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the same standards with respect to health care organizations without regard to their receipt of federal funds.

This closed captioned video streams from The Joint Commission's Hospitals, Language, and Culture Web site at http://www.jointcommission.org/PatientSafety/HLC/. This page also includes related resources from the Hospitals, Language and Culture: A Snapshot of the Nation study, a cross-sectional, qualitative study of how 60 hospitals across the country provide health care to culturally and linguistically diverse patient populations, conducted by The Joint Commission with funding from The California Endowment. The video is also available at the Office of Civil Rights Web site at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/civilrights/resources/specialtopics/hospitalcommunication/index.html.   

The OCR Web page also includes many resources on effective communication for LEP and deaf and hard of hearing persons.
Contact:(630) 792-5175
HHS Public Affairs:
(202) 690-6343    
Joint Commission Media Relations

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