Does access to telephone interpretation improve health care?

Quality of care can be seriously compromised when health providers and patients can’t communicate in the same language. In 2012, the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network set up a telephone interpretation program designed to offer quick access to telephone interpreters to hospitals, community health centres, mental health centres, community support services and other health-related services.

In 2014, the Centre for Research on Inner City Health’s Survey Research Unit evaluated the program in order to inform improvements and program expansion. We found that access to telephone interpretation:

– Helped people exert more control over their own health care.

– Allowed organizations to serve people they weren’t able to in the past.

– Promoted a significant shift from the utilization of ad-hoc, non-professional interpretation options (family members, administrative staff, etc.) which can, in some cases, compromise care.

– In some cases, offered more privacy/confidentiality to patients than in-person interpretation.

We also found a need to:

– Complement telephone interpretation with strategies including in-person interpretation, adaptations for people who are hard of hearing and video conference options.

– Offer the option to choose gender of interpreter and allow time for providers to brief interpreters before appointments.

For a full range of findings and recommendations, please see our report, ‘Reducing the Language Accessibility Gap: Language Services Toronto Program Evaluation report.’

Additional resources from the Centre for Research on Inner City Health related to language barriers and health care:

Sears J, Khan K, Ardern CI, Tamim H. Potential for patient-physician language discordance in Ontario. BMC Health Services Research. 2013; 13: 535. To read a plain language summary of this paper, click here. For a related article in the Toronto Star, click here. For full text, click here.

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