Have you or your family ever benefitted from patient services?  Offered by many hospitals, clinics, and even pharmaceutical companies, patient services include things like website features, support groups, and classes.

Patient services provide help, information, a morale boost, and/or comfort. But a recent article points out that they’re not perfect; many patient service providers (PSPs) need to be more in tune with patients. The article features a list of suggestions on how to do this, organized into four main categories. We were inspired to come up with a similar list, for patients from different cultural, national, and linguistic backgrounds.  Here are our ideas for how PSPs can better help these patients:

Operational. Translation and localization are essential in supporting a diverse patient base.

Whether they’re offered by a hospital in an area with a diverse local population, or a website dedicated to an international audience, patient services need to be easily accessible and understood. Speaking the local language(s), and speaking to the local culture(s) isn’t just a way to keep patients informed and satisfied; it can also prevent problems like lawsuits. On a more emotional, but equally important, level, studies have shown that feeling connected to and cared for by their PSP plays an essential role in a patient’s recovery or commitment to treatment.

Some basic ways to achieve this understanding is to translate documents and texts and have medical interpreters on-site, but PSPs also need to consider localization – that is, adapting a service to (a) specific culture(s), not just (a) language(s).  Localization can involve adapting activities to make them more appealing to local groups, or creating a version of your website that takes into account the way a culture reacts to layout, design, and content.  For instance, some groups, like the US Hispanic population, tend to prefer watching videos when it comes to browsing and getting information online. So, a PSP working with a Hispanic patient base should consider incorporating videos into their webpage or social media.

Engagement. Collecting accurate data across cultures and languages requires flawless translation and localization.

Surveys are an excellent way for PSPs to find out what’s working and what needs improvement. But if questions aren’t completely comprehensible across cultures, the results will inevitably be flawed. Translating questions – especially when medical terminology is involved – is fraught with challenges. Some of the biggest aren’t even the most apparent. For example, as we’ve discussed before, even reporting pain can vary due to cultural expectations and customs. Vocabulary, of course, also plays an important role. Even fairly similar groups may be confused with a single word, and respond incorrectly.  Duke University’s Patrick R. Miller gives an excellent illustration of this, pointing out that the word “pants” differs in meaning in American and British English. So how to avoid a flawed survey?  Make sure the person translating it not only knows the language(s) involved, but also the culture(s).

Patient Beliefs. Different religious, social, and cultural beliefs affect patient perspectives.

This issue is one we often explore on the aiaConnect blog, because it’s so prevalent in healthcare. Patients also feel more at ease and open to advice and treatment if they know staff members, including interpreters, are familiar with their cultures and beliefs, but not all professionals may be aware of them. One way PSPs can change this is by giving staff information directly. Distributing a guide like this one – or providing one tailor-made for a specific PSP – is a great place to start. Training sessions are another option worth considering. People like Tina Peña, head of The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters, know this well; when training medical interpretation students, Peña includes lessons on traditions, customs, and home remedies they might encounter.  .

Adherence. Culture can have an impact on adherence to treatment plans. Another common issue that PSPs working with multicultural patient bases face, is how culture affects treatment. This study and many others reveal that some people from certain cultural backgrounds may prefer traditional medicine rather than keeping up with the treatment their doctor prescribed – and that’s just one example. Understanding a culture’s influence on prescribed care will prepare PSPs to verify that treatment and other plans are being followed through.

A patient service provider must recognize that understanding its patients’ languages and cultures is vital. As PSPs like the ones featured in this article show, it is possible to have an organization that perfectly understands and works with its patients, regardless of their linguistic or cultural background, but it does take some work, of course.  PSPs should be sure they’re hiring translators and interpreters who also know the culture(s) in question. And staff in general should be educated and open-minded about patients’ backgrounds, customs, and beliefs.  Fostering understanding and improving ways to communicate and share information with patients will allow both them, and the PSP itself, to thrive.

By Alysa Salzberg