Tech to make healthcare more accessible for Latinx patients
Latinx Americans have a high uninsured rate, and they report having adverse health outcomes due to language and cultural barriers. This article explores how emerging technology has the potential to make healthcare more accessible for Spanish-speaking communities when application developers take language needs into account.
Latinx Americans include people of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish cultural origin. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), they’re the country’s largest racial or ethnic group apart from non-Hispanic whites.
“We know that people with limited English proficiency too often face discrimination when seeking health care and human services,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “The risk of misinformation, the wrong type of care, or foregoing care altogether is high when language barriers persist.”
HHS cites 2020 census data showing that over 62 million people identified as “Hispanic”, representing 19% of the population. Latinx American families are more than twice as likely to be living at the poverty level as non-Hispanic whites.
Language and cultural barriers
Most Latinx households speak Spanish, rather than English, at home. Roughly 28% of Latinx Americans don’t consider themselves fluent in English.
While about 74% of non-Hispanic white Americans have private insurance coverage, only about half of Latinx Americans are similarly insured. Roughly 18% of Latinx Americans are not covered by health insurance versus just 5.4% of non-Hispanic whites. This is the highest uninsured rate among any US ethnic group.
A Pew Research Center study found that, “Language and cultural barriers, as well as factors such as higher levels of poverty, particularly among recent Hispanic immigrants, are among the social and economic dynamics that contribute to disparate health outcomes for Hispanic Americans.” In the poll, 44% of Latinx Americans agreed that language and cultural differences led to worse health outcomes for them than other US adults.
Technology solutions for language barriers
Working in the healthcare technology industry, I’ve come to realise that technology can provide genuine solutions to the Latinx community’s health equity concerns. And the research backs me up.
For example, a ground-breaking Australian healthcare study tested mobile translation applications for elderly patients who spoke English as a second language. The researchers found that mobile translation apps were useful tools for overcoming language barriers: they not only improved communication, but they improved patient engagement and rapport.
The study also identified some shortcomings with existing technology. These included lack of background noise filtering and occasional translation inaccuracy. Even so, mobile translation apps effectively overcame patient language barriers.
The pandemic has substantially increased America’s adoption of telemedicine. Telemedicine also has the potential to remove language barriers for Latinx and other patients with emerging English proficiency, especially in remote communities.
Unfortunately, telemedicine’s potential language benefits weren’t always realised in the early phases of social distancing. For example, a University of Philadelphia study published in JAMA found that patients for whom English was their second language were 16% less likely to complete telemedicine visits.
To address this disparity, the Hospital of the University of Philadelphia has established a formal outreach process, contacting patients in their preferred language. It has also integrated translation services into telemedicine applications and translated all telemedicine patient setup instructions into Spanish.
Latinx community is “very comfortable” with technology products
This telemedicine adoption issue doesn’t appear to be technology-related. For example, a Journal of Cultural Marketing Strategy study found that 59% of Latinx Americans are “very comfortable” with technology products, as opposed to 50% of other Americans.
This higher comfort level with technology among Latinx Americans includes using wearables, fitness apps, online patient portals and digital prescription refills. Similarly, 56% of Latinx respondents said that staying up-to-date with technology was important to them, versus 44% of other respondents.
Another University of Pennsylvania study assessed asthma patients’ use of electronic health record portals. They found that 75% of Spanish speakers experienced barriers to using the portal versus 25% of English speakers.
Many of the Spanish-speaking study participants suggested that a Spanish version of the portal would make it more user-friendly. The study recommended that health systems serving Latinx communities implement Spanish-language versions of their patient portals.
Language diversity presents an opportunity
The research confirms my own experience that, historically, America’s healthcare system has underserved the Latinx community. The good news is that the data also indicates a strong willingness to adopt digital technology among Spanish-speaking Americans.
So, the service disparity should be seen as an opportunity to boost patient equity, rather than as a problem. Where healthcare technology providers have incorporated language needs into the user experience, patient engagement and rapport have improved substantially, improving patient outcomes.
I’m convinced that information technology offers healthcare providers the opportunity to deliver more personalised care than ever before. When a digital tool’s user experience takes language needs into account, our healthcare system becomes more equitable and inclusive, improving rapport and patient outcomes for all Americans.
All of us working in the industry have a responsibility, as well as an opportunity, to take the necessary steps to make this happen.
About the author
Larry Margolis, CEO and founder of PersonalRX, derives his knowledge of the health and technology marketplaces from his eight-plus years in pharmacy leadership and 20 years as a Wall Street broker, where he focused on emerging technologies. His experience in financial markets includes roles as associate director at The Bear Stearns Companies and senior VP, director of Special Accounts, at Prudential Securities. Margolis also previously served as co-founder and CEO of Streetbrains, LLC, a platform for promoting independent market research from industry experts.