Liz Sheffield

How to Communicate Health Care to a Multilingual Workforce

When you’re communicating about health care to your multilingual workforce, it’s important to first understand the challenges non-native English speakers face. Consider these words: Bác sĩ. Врач. Læge. Daktari. Docteur. Doktor.

Those six words all represent the word “doctor” in different languages. That’s just one word related to health care.

Whether you’re an HR decision-maker, business owner or administrator responsible for communicating about health care, you must ensure employees are informed and have access to the health care benefits you offer.

Communicating About Health Care With a Multilingual Workforce

In 2016, there were 63.2 million people age five and older who spoke a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“In the New York metro area alone, more than a third of the population speaks a language other than English at home, and close to 200 different languages are spoken,” said a bureau statistician.

Potential Risks

For non-native English speakers, language barriers present potentially life-threatening risks when it comes to health care. As noted by UPI, patients who deal with language barriers are at “an increased risk of 30-day readmissions, adverse events, and longer stays in inpatient and emergency room settings.”

While selecting the wrong benefit plan may not be life-threatening for your employees, it can still have a negative impact. For example, if an employee with limited English proficiency chooses the wrong plan, they may not be able to afford the care they need or they may not take advantage of the discounted prescription benefits the plan has to offer.

Ways to Communicate

If your company has a multilingual workforce, ideally there’s already a plan in place for how to address multilingual needs that you can leverage and put to use for health care communications. If there isn’t a plan, consider some of these strategies:

1. Translate health care information. The ideal solution is to translate your health care materials. But this can be costly as you will need to translate the documents to meet the needs of the entire workforce, which could mean translating them into several different languages. Your plan provider may already offer communication materials in the most common languages. Before you begin the process of translation, ask them what they have available.

2. Hire translators to assist with enrollment. It’s likely that employees will have questions about health care options. The need for translators will come up during open enrollment, when employees are hired and possibly throughout the year. Again, your plan provider may have translators available. If not, search for freelance translators who can assist with questions during this time; be sure that their skill level matches what’s required to translate around the topic of health care. Also, given the confidential nature of the topic, you’ll want to have agreements in place to ensure private information is handled appropriately.

3. Communicate in simple language. Health care is a complex topic and is not known for being easy to understand, even for native English speakers. But if you’re not translating the content, there are things you can do to make the content easier to comprehend:

  • Keep it simple. Avoid long and unfamiliar words as much as possible. Remove redundancies. For example, use “existing” instead of “already existing.” Instead of “utilize” choose “use.”
  • Be consistent. Especially in the format and the grammatical style. This makes it easier for readers to quickly grasp your message.
  • Get feedback. Ask a few multilingual employees to review your health care communications. What makes sense? What is difficult for them to understand? Use their input as clues for what you need to change.

For employees who use English as their second language, it can be complicated to navigate the workplace. When the HR decision-maker or administrator accommodates workers by providing important health care communications in multiple languages, it’s not only appreciated — it can be a great relief. By taking steps to address multiple language needs, an organization not only improves communication, it also improves employee engagement.

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