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The Importance Of Language Testing in Healthcare

Language tests play a vital role in reducing errors in the healthcare setting. When lives are on the line, accurate interpretation and translation are necessary. Language testing ensures that people in these roles have a high understanding of both language and medical terminology.

Imagine being in another country and unexpectedly needing to seek medical care. You find your way to a hospital or clinic, only to be met with confusion and anxiety as you realize you can’t understand anyone—and they can’t understand you. This is the reality for millions of people in the United States. Often, these non-English-speaking patients bring a friend or family member to help interpret for them. 

That’s exactly what a 9-year-old Vietnamese child did many times for her parents after her family immigrated to the United States. Unfortunately, there was no one to interpret for her when she experienced a medical emergency herself. This language barrier led to her receiving a medication that she was allergic to, which resulted in her death. In the ten years since this incident occurred in 2014, medical facilities have prioritized hiring interpreters. But there are also far more non-English-speaking people than before. Many hospitals report a serious lack in the number of people who can interpret for patients. Additionally, those who can interpret struggle to translate correctly due to a skill gap.

The healthcare industry includes a complex network of abbreviations, acronyms, and medical terminology. This adds another level of difficulty when it comes to communicating. Because of this complexity, language testing in healthcare is an important tool for reducing errors and improving patient outcomes.

Why Do We Need Language Tests in Healthcare?

According to the US Census, nearly 68 million people in the United States speak a language other than English, and that number is on the rise. This means about 1 out of every 5 households may face difficulty communicating their needs regarding healthcare. 

Ultimately, these language barriers can impact patients’ quality of care. Evidence shows that language barriers can lead to misdiagnosis, inappropriate treatment, and patient dissatisfaction. Language testing is a solution for bridging this gap.

Language testing ensures all patients are well-understood and understand their providers. When this happens, patient satisfaction rates increase, patient outcomes improve, and medical errors decrease. 

Why is Language Testing Important? 

The number 1 cause of medical errors is miscommunication. This includes both written and verbal communication and can be between patient and provider or from one provider to another. Breakdown of communication is especially easy to do in emergency settings, where multiple healthcare workers are trying to communicate with each other and the patient. 

As we already noted, 1 in every 5 households in the United States speaks a language other than English. Additional research tells us that people (especially children of ESL parents) are twice as likely to experience poor medical care as children of native-English-speaking parents. 

In the healthcare industry, language barriers can lead to:

  • Poor coordination when it comes to transferring patient care and giving or receiving orders
  • Inadequate documentation of patient information
  • Mislabeled specimens 
  • Inappropriate patient identification
  • Inadequate patient assessment
  • Failure to obtain consent
  • Insufficient patient education
  • Insufficient training and inconsistent or inadequate education for those providing care
  • Inadequate staffing
  • Inappropriate medication administration 
  • Unnecessary procedures 
  • Inadequate policies

Conversely, language testing can improve communication and reduce medical errors. Language testing also plays a role in reducing costs for both the facility and the patient by reducing errors, prolonged or inappropriate treatment, and misunderstandings. 

What is the Purpose of the Language Proficiency Test?

Language proficiency testing is a common and effective way to test language and communication skills. Healthcare organizations of any size and specialty can use language proficiency testing to test a candidate’s ability to:

  • Communicate effectively 
  • Understand medical terms 
  • Understand and communicate in a non-native language

Why is Testing and Evaluation Important in Language Teaching?

Language testing is not only important for testing a candidate’s ability but also to test for improvement. Language proficiency is a skill that takes ongoing practice. Continuing education for language proficiency is also important in medical or healthcare settings where information is constantly evolving. 

Which Language Tests are Important for Healthcare Professionals? 

Many components of language proficiency tests can be used together or separately to fit your specific needs. Popular language proficiency testing includes reading, writing, speaking and listening assessments, interpretation and translation, and medical language proficiency testing

These tests are not only recommended for ESL healthcare professionals but for native-English speakers as well. This is because many native-English-speaking professionals may have to communicate with ESL or non-English-speaking patients until an interpreter can help. There are even some situations when an interpreter isn’t available at all. In this case, a native-English-speaking healthcare professional must rely on proficient language skills to communicate effectively and ensure proper care. 

Importance of Language Testing for Cultural Inclusion

An endearing quality of our nation is its diversity. With over 13% of the nation’s foreign-born population and millions of new immigrants each year, our cultural diversity will only grow. Healthcare organizations can do their part to support cultural diversity by ensuring that language barriers are not a reason someone can’t access appropriate healthcare. Language proficiency tests are the most effective way to achieve this.

Can AI Provide Adequate Translation and Interpretation?

Some may wonder if there is still a need for human translation and interpretation in a world with fast-growing AI integrations. In short, the answer is yes.

You find AI is mentioned in the news a lot nowadays. Short for artificial intelligence, it is useful for many things when it comes to writing, generating ideas, interpretation, and language translation. In healthcare, AI is helping teach healthcare topics, diagnose diseases, predict outcomes, and recommend treatments. AI algorithms are also being used to analyze medical images (like X-rays and MRIs) and flag potential problems. Some industry leaders for AI technology in healthcare report that “76% of healthcare and life science firms will use AI by next year”.

However, there are some problems when it comes to relying on AI in healthcare. According to Interprefy, some of the biggest problems include:

  • Lack of consistency in quality.
  • Picking up on cultural nuances.
  • Correct interpretation when dealing with accents, dialects, and speech impediments.

There is also a concern about data privacy when it comes to using AI in healthcare settings. Despite its limitations, AI is still a great tool that can be used to complement human expertise (but not replace it). 

Types of Language Testing in Healthcare

Language testing can include several components, depending on your or your healthcare institution’s needs. Most language testing will consist of some or all of the following:

  • Aptitude testing – These tests can help measure your ability to learn new language skills—including foreign language skills, spoken language skills, and reading comprehension.
  • Diagnostic testing – These tests are great for determining where a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to English proficiency.
  • Placement tests – These tests are a starting point for anyone who has never had a language skill test before or is testing in a language that is not native to them.
  • Achievement tests – These tests evaluate your language skills progress over time.
  • Proficiency tests – This is the most common type of language testing used to evaluate your competency in a particular language.

All of these tests will assess your listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. Some may even assess your reading comprehension and knowledge of certain industry terminology.

Tips for Language Testing

Since English language proficiency is required for most healthcare jobs, getting a language test may be something you consider if you are applying to work at a hospital or other medical facility. 

Language testing is a standardized testing process that can provide an evaluation of communicative skills and language abilities. Like most standardized testing, there are things you can do to prepare for testing and help improve your score. 

Tips for language test takers

  • Pay extra attention to your listening skills in the weeks leading up to your test. This will help you fine-tune your listening skills.
  • Practice high-frequency words in the language you are testing for.
  • Determine what time of day you are at your best for test taking. Some people test better in the morning vs. the afternoon. If you can, schedule your language test for a time of day when you are at your best.
  • Since many language tests are done virtually (either by phone or video call), having a quiet area with limited distractions is important. Think ahead for child care and a quiet location for your test. Going to a library may be a good option if your workplace does not provide a specific testing area. 

You can also improve your test scores by utilizing ALTA’s Practice Tests. We offer practice tests for: 

You can find out more specific information on our language testing FAQ page.

Overview of Language Assessments in Healthcare

With over 32 million Americans speaking a language other than English at home, the healthcare industry cannot afford to let language barriers play a role in access to healthcare. Improving language skills is important for ensuring adequate and proper healthcare. The best way to do this is with language proficiency tests, which can assess almost all areas of communication, including reading, writing, reading comprehension, interpretation, translation, and medical terminology in most languages.

ALTA is a leader in standardized English language proficiency testing. Our tests are used by many healthcare facilities and organizations that strive to provide the best patient care. To learn more about how we help improve language skills in healthcare, visit our healthcare services page or contact us directly

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