The lesser-known problem of cancer therapy: communication

A new study from the University of California shows that only a third of physicians in the Los Angeles area have access to satisfactory medical interpreters in order to communicate important therapeutic information to their patients.

The survey was conducted at the university’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and included physicians from in and around Los Angeles. The LA area has a large proportion of Spanish and Asian residents, hence, making it crucial to have trained translators, who can both understand the language and the medical terms necessary. The proportion of limited English proficiency (LEP) patients – as they are called – is 27% here as compared to 9% in the rest of the country.

Astoundingly, three quarters of respondents don’t use trained medical communicators but rely on friends, family or office staff that are not specifically trained to interpret complex clinical language. One of the major disadvantages with using a patient’s family for interpretation, other than lack of medical knowledge, according to the researchers, is that there is a risk of the concerned person withholding information from the patient on account of being protective or based on what they see fit. Such decisions, however, should be made at the patient’s discretion and judgment, and medical translators can provide that impartial aspect.

Previous studies have shown that cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment are all affected by the lack of qualified interpreters. When the experiences of Thai and Vietnamese women were compared in a previous study, based on access vs. no access to trained medical interpreters, the quality of health care was seen to be significantly reduced in the former.

One of the suggestions that Dr. Danielle Rose, the lead researcher, and her team make in the Jonsson Center study is that physician-patient communication be included in Medicare reimbursements.

Several programs around the country are using creative ways to provide access to medical translators and interpreters. The Missouri Telehealth Interpretation Project, for instance, uses the Language Access Metro Project (LAMP) to provide physicians with access to interpreters. In addition, the University of Missouri Institute of Public Policy and the Center for Health Policy, which are part of the program, are promoting the significance of such medical interpretation for the delivery of proper care. Missouri Telehealth Network (MTN), which was already established by the state, will receive LAMP interpreters, free of charge through the project for two years.

More states and health organizations should be launching programs in conjunction with health care providers so that patients are not only educated on the importance of having a translator but also have access to one.

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