As a society, we increasingly rely on technology in our everyday lives. However, with the growing prevalence of digital devices comes the threat of communication barriers between people from different cultures. These barriers can result in significant health disparities for individuals unable to communicate with their healthcare providers or connect with others in their communities. Fortunately, technology is being used to promote better health outcomes and health equity for these individuals.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one in three Americans speak a language other than English at home. This number is expected to increase as the United States continues to become a more diverse society. In addition to speaking different languages, many Americans are also disadvantaged by a lack of access to education and health care. According to the National Health Interview Survey, more than 22 million Americans had limited English proficiency (LEP) in 2017. While language has an important impact on a person’s overall health, it can also create barriers to accessing and receiving high-quality healthcare. Studies have shown that people who are unable to communicate effectively with their healthcare providers are more likely to have worse health outcomes and incur higher medical costs. They also face an increased risk of developing chronic health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.
One of the most promising areas for leveraging technology is the use of machine translation. Machine language can be used to translate written materials such as consent forms, brochures, and patient instructions into multiple languages, making it more accessible to individuals who speak different languages. While the use of machine translation is not a replacement for professional translators, it can be a useful tool for making health information more accessible to all populations, especially those families with limited English proficiencies.
In recent years, a number of innovative programs have been developed to help individuals with limited English skills access health services in their communities. This includes the Language Line program. By providing support services and additional resources to the individuals who need them the most, these programs help reduce the language and cultural barriers that many individuals face when receiving medical care.
Another area where technology can play a role is in the development of smartphone apps. Designed to provide on-the-go health information and support, language features can be integrated to help people with diverse linguistic backgrounds better understand and manage their health. For example, SpeechMED is a multilingual voice app where patients can not only read but listen to, their vital health information. It notifies users when to take their medicine, keeps track of their progress, and provides reminders for appointments or follow-up tests. It serves as a complete care coordination tool that can be used by individuals to manage their health or to help caregivers remotely monitor the health of their loved ones.
An ideal case where SpeechMED is useful is providing multilingual medication notifications. An example we use often use is a common medication instruction, “Take once a day.” For English speakers, it’s obvious to take one pill. But for a Spanish speaker, the confusion can come from the word “once” which means eleven. If medication instructions are tied to medication reminders, then a Spanish patient would only receive one notification through their SpeechMED app.
While technology has the potential to play a significant role in overcoming language barriers and promoting health equity, it alone cannot achieve these goals. Rather, it requires efforts from stakeholders across a variety of disciplines and sectors. At the individual level, providers should be trained to address cultural needs and provide care to patients with diverse backgrounds. At the institutional level, hospitals and clinics should be equipped with resources and tools that make it easier for individuals to communicate with healthcare providers and access essential services. Policymakers should support the development of and investment in new technologies that address the healthcare needs of underserved populations. Let’s work together towards a more equitable healthcare system where all individuals have the information and resources they need to make an informed decision about their health.