Massachusetts General Hospital clinicians detail language access strategy amid COVID-19

A paper recently published in the American Journal of Medical Care is shedding light on the importance of providing language access services in the healthcare setting — even before a patient makes their appointment.

Although virtual care may have made healthcare safer and more convenient for English speakers during the early days of the pandemic, it actually did the opposite for individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP). A recently published case study of how clinicians at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic showed that clients were significantly less likely to schedule video-based doctor’s appointments if they had LEP. 

“With an increased reliance on virtual care for health care during the pandemic, it’s important to make sure we are not increasing disparities for patients who have language barriers,” said Aswita Tan-McGrory, the lead author of the study. “Also, addressing challenges with these three strategies will actually increase care and access for all patients.”

The hospital’s leadership took a handful of approaches to alleviating this disparity. First, the hospital adopted an extensive marketing plan that targeted speakers of multiple languages — this marketing plan involved the development of videos and other resources to show patients with LEP how simple setting up telehealth appointments can be. They also expanded the language offerings available on the hospital’s online patient portal, which has historically been underused by individuals with LEP. The hospital also made efforts to educate patients with LEP about their privacy as well as more fully integrating interpreters into their virtual platforms.

“In short, although virtual platforms allowed many patients to safely access care during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they unintentionally disenfranchised a large segment of the population, especially those with LEP,” the report concludes. “Although many health systems had to go live with virtual care platforms that were not intended for such rapid scaling, going forward we must commit ourselves to be more intentional with our design and implementation of virtual care so that we may truly meet the mission of providing quality care for everyone.”

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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