Is over the phone interpreting the new norm in healthcare?

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world in many ways, including an increased reliance on technology to help us communicate remotely. As we continue to adjust to this “new normal,” we’re learning which of our pandemic-induced remote solutions are here to stay. Many office workers say they will continue to work via Zoom and telehealth seems like it will be sticking around as a popular option.

The COVID-19 pandemic also sped up our reliance on Over-the-Phone Interpreting (OPI) services. It became clear that remote interpreting was safer than in-person interpreting, especially in healthcare settings. But what will healthcare interpreting services look like in the months and years to come?

The Benefits of OPI

Pandemic or not, interpreting services have always been critical for patient success. A 2015 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showed that “the use of professional medical interpreters is associated with increased patient satisfaction, quality of care, and improved disease-specific process measures and outcome.”

During the spread of a highly contagious virus, the benefits of OPI over in-person interpreting services are obvious: it’s a safer way to communicate. There are many other benefits to using OPI in healthcare settings, though, outside of a pandemic:

  • Efficient access to a wide network of interpreters available in hundreds of languages
  • Often more affordable than in-person interpreting services
  • Available around the clock with little or no notice

Whether it’s OPI, video, or in-person, healthcare providers need to offer interpreting services for patients. In the US, 8% of the population is considered Limited English Proficient (LEP). Data from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston showed that, during the pandemic, their LEP patients had a “35% greater chance of death.” When patients and providers can’t communicate, it is challenging to provide appropriate care.

Drawbacks of OPI

While OPI can significantly help to reduce language barriers for LEP patients, this service isn’t perfect.

In-person, interpreters can pick up on non-verbal cues from patients that they might miss with a phone call. It’s hard to build trust with patients when you can’t look them in the eyes. Video Remote Interpreting can help alleviate some, but not all, of these issues. Healthcare providers and interpreters have to navigate more technical issues with both OPI and VRI than they would with in-person services. Plus, it can be more difficult for remote interpreters to clearly understand a patient who is wearing a mask.

Despite these drawbacks, it seems like OPI services will remain an essential part of the healthcare system moving forward.

The Future of OPI

The pandemic exposed the harsh reality of healthcare inequities. Data from hospitals in New York, Los Angeles and Boston showed “the Hispanic/Latinx community, of whom many are limited English proficient (LEP), account for a disproportionately large percentage of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.” And studies have shown that language barriers, at least in some part, contributed to these statistics.

OPI is one way to help improve outcomes for LEP patients. OPI services can quickly help a healthcare provider communicate with LEP patients. While a hospital might have an interpreter on staff, OPI services can help in situations when a patient speaks a language that is less common in the community.

OPI can also be easily integrated into increasingly-popular telehealth appointments. According to an article in Nature Medicine, “the number of covered telehealth visits at the health insurer UnitedHealth Group rose from 1.2 million visits in 2019 to 34 million in 2020.” Telehealth can help reduce access barriers and, by offering OPI services with telehealth, LEP patients have a better chance of getting appropriate care.

Like many aspects of remote work, OPI has some setbacks. But this is one crucial tool that can help break down barriers and improve health outcomes for LEP patients.

Over-The-Phone (OPI) is one of the language services offered by ALTA. Our network of over 2,500 professional interpreters is also available for on-site, Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) and more. Learn more about how ALTA can connect you with the perfect interpreter for your needs.

Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.

You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.

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