Language Yet Another Healthcare Barrier

by Maria Sunantha Quibilan/

LOS ANGELES – More than 2.5 million Los Angeles County residents face language barriers that may jeopardize their access to important social and healthcare services, according to a new report released on Monday by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC).

The report, entitled “LA Speaks: Language Diversity and English Proficiency by Los Angeles County Service Planning Area,” states that majority of LA County residents speak a language other than English at home, and that approximately one in three have limited English proficiency or find difficulty communicating in English.

Complementing the data in “LA Speaks,” a compilation of stories which illustrate the effect of language barriers on access to healthcare was released by PALS for Health. “In the Absence of Words” contains ten personal stories of “language ambassadors,” participants in the PALS for Health Speakers’ Bureau, who deal with LA County residents with limited English proficiency (LEP) and have firsthand experience of the need for the assistance of trained healthcare interpreters.

“Everyday we receive calls from LEPs seeking care at County health facilities, but who are often not provided the language assistance they need. These are some of their stories.” said Veronika Geronimo, Program Director of PALS for Health.

Both “LA Speaks” and “In the Absence of Words” reveal the special challenges brought about by the issue of language diversity in LA County, and their release coincides with the County’s recent move to address the problem of language barriers in health care.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved last year the hiring of nine full-time healthcare interpreters and the implementation of Video Medical Interpretation (VMI) technology, a system involving the use of videoconferencing to instantaneously connect patients and doctors in County hospitals with off-site interpreters.

The full-time interpreters will be hired for Spanish, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese languages, and the VMI interpreters for Armenia, Russian, Farsi, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish languages.

Rancho Los Amigos, LAC+USC, UCLA-Harbor and Olive View County Hospitals are the four Los Angeles County healthcare institutions that will use VMI.

Doreena Wong, staff attorney from the National Health Law Program, says that “it is tremendous that the County is taking important steps to meet its legal obligations to provide language assistance” to its residents. She however added that this is just “a first step” and that the County must “continue to grow this program to address more languages in the future.”

Furthemore, Wingshan Lo, Health Policy Advocate at ALPAC, states that while they are thankful that the County has approved the hiring of nine full-time interpreters and funded the implementation of VMI, the entire community’s help is needed to check up on the effectiveness of such programs.

“Doctors, hospital staff, patients [are also needed] to help monitor whether these changes successfully meet the daily crush of language needs at County hospitals. Right now, there is little to no outreach to inform the community and the County hospital staff about the hiring of the trained healthcare interpreters or the implementation of the VMI system. There is also no system in place to provide feedback to County about problems the community may encounter when requesting interpretation,” Lo said.

Advocates are urging the community to give feedback on their experience with the new healthcare interpreters and videoconferencing system by calling PALS forHealth hotlines at 213-627-4850 (Spanish) or 800-228-8886 (English, Armenian, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Thai and Vietnamese). Information from these hotlines will give insight as to whether the County is meeting the needs emphasized in the new reports.


(For a full copy of the “LA Speaks” report, visit

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