Shared Networks Of Interpreter Services, At Relatively Low Cost, Can Help Providers Serve Patients With Limited English Skills
- Elizabeth A. Jacobs ( [email protected] ) is the associate vice chair for Health Services Research in the Department of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
- Ginelle Sanchez Leos is a business analyst at the Exelon Corporation, in Oakbrook, Illinois
- Paul J. Rathouz is chair of the Department of Biostatistics and Medical Informatics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, in Madison.
- Paul Fu Jr. is the division chief of pediatric hospital medicine in the Department of Pediatrics at the Harbor-University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center.
Language barriers in health care—a large and growing problem in the United States—contribute to disparities in health care quality and outcomes in populations with limited English proficiency. Providing access to adequate interpreter services has been shown to reduce health disparities in these populations. However, many health care organizations do not provide such services because of the perceived high cost. In this observational study we calculated the costs incurred by a group of California public hospitals that formed a network to make trained interpreters available via videoconference and telephone. We found that encounters in this network where interpreters helped patients and providers communicate lasted an average of 10.6 minutes and cost an average of $24.86 per encounter. Such costs should be weighed against the likely alternatives, such as the opportunity costs of having other hospital staff act as ad hoc interpreters; medical errors that could result from inadequate interpretation; and the fact that not providing such services may leave providers out of compliance with federal law. We also discuss ways in which providers could be compensated for providing interpreter services.