Effective communication between medical providers and their patients is the cornerstone of quality healthcare because it directly affects the caliber of patient care, medical outcomes, and patient safety.  The ability to communicate effectively is especially important when nursing staff is rendering bedside care.  Yet many nursing home residents who require bedside care have no access to interpreters.  Inadequate communication between residents and their caretakers can have tragic consequences and is often the cause of delayed care or preventable injuries, such as bed sores and bone fractures. 

Nursing Home Care Standards for Language and Communication

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 48 million people in the United States whose primary language is not English and that cannot readily speak or comprehend English. Approximately 10% of the elderly population in the U.S. was born in another country.  The number of elderly immigrants is expected to rise to about 20% by the year 2050, with the total number of elderly immigrants quadrupling to approximately 16 million.

As a result, language and communication barriers in the nursing home setting are becoming a real concern — and facilities need to respond to these issues in order to provide quality care.  Effective communication usually involves getting the patient’s attention and understanding through both his/her spoken language and patient educational materials.

Nursing homes and long term care facilities that receive federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are prohibited from conducting any of their programs, activities, and services in a manner that subjects any person or class of persons to discrimination on the grounds of race, color, or national origin.  This means that nursing home staff must address language barriers when providing healthcare services.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) developed recommendations for national standards for culturally and linguistically appropriate services for healthcare providers.  The standards incorporate laws, regulations, and standards used by federal and state agencies, as well as other national organizations. The purpose of these regulations is to promote equal and effective treatment to all people, regardless of their background or ethnicity.  These laws are applicable to all cultures and linguistic groups.  The National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health and Health Care standards can be viewed at the US Department of Health and Human Services website provided above.

Furthermore, in order to participate in the Medicare or Medicaid programs, nursing home facilities are required to present information on health status in language that the resident can understand.  This includes minimizing use of technical jargon in communicating with the resident, and having the ability to communicate in a foreign language and the use of sign language or other aids.

What Actions Can Nursing Homes Take to Address Language Barriers?

There are several choices available for nursing homes to communicate with persons that are not proficient in English.  These include using family members or friends, professional interpreters, bilingual staff or language line services.  However, the effectiveness of using family members, friends and self-declared bilingual staff is often questioned.  Best practices include making use of a readily accessible and qualified language services provider.

Some other steps that may be taken include developing publications in the language of the population, identifying culturally focused informational websites as a form of education and educating caregivers through professional meetings, conferences, and publications.

What Should I Do if My Parent’s Nursing Home Won’t Provide an Interpreter?

Under the law, nursing homes must communicate medical information to residents in their native language. If your parent or loved one doesn’t speak English, and the nursing home won’t provide a translator or language service, you should file a complaint with the long term care ombudsman or local governing agency.  Their health may depend on it.

If you believe that your loved one suffered injury, malnourishment, or dehydration due to a nursing home’s failure to effectively communicate with them in their native language, contact nursing home abuse lawyer Brent Wieand at (800) 481-5206.  The consultation is completely free, and you will pay no attorney’s fees unless we successfully pursue your claim and obtain financial compensation through a settlement, arbitration award, or verdict.