Show Me the Money! Healthcare's Guide to Buying Language Services


We all know the three ‘Professional’ delivery models: Video, telephonic and face to face. But there are two more… The Helper and The Family Member. The helper is a friend or community member who cares about humanity and knows that any language help is better than none. They are drawn to the value they place on helping others and possibly the favor it brings to them by being really ‘Helpful’.  

The Family Member is protective and doesn’t want anyone to hurt their loved one. They want to use their language skills to make sure that nobody else can mess with their family. They also think that no one else can do as good a job as they can. How could they? No one knows their loved one like they do!  

Most peoples' understanding of professional interpreting is vague at best. While the healthcare interpreting industry has worked to define this, it has focused mostly on theory and basic execution. The focus is on the encounter. People starting out as interpreters usually start as The Helper or The Family Member. I think most of us have been in this role and reverted back to it more than a few times. I know I have. 

What’s taking over the language services industry in healthcare are One Size Fits All solutions. They offer a product that is easily understood and sold by people who have intimate knowledge of what a buyer wants. They can solve all of healthcare’s language access problems and if their product is implemented there will no longer be any issues. The buyer can understand the product because it’s a system. Whether or not this kind of solution is true is evident in all of the pros and cons. But the buyer is buying easy. They’re buying compliance on paper and getting language services off their plate.  

But user experience needs to be considered. There is a huge gap between the buyer and the user. When the service is too hard to use or fails to deliver what is needed users will go to any means necessary to get something they can trust. Even if this means using Google Translate or The Family Member or The Helper. They don’t care because what they use is trusted beyond the services they were promised.  

Interpreters need to make sure their services, regardless of delivery mode, is EASY. Easy is predictable because it is consistent. Consistent is predictable and therefore trusted. Easy means there is an integrated system that is obvious to all touch points of the services you provide.  

The biggest gap champions of healthcare interpreters face today is that professional operational standards don't exist. Operational standards are always need to meet the needs of customers, colleagues and employees. You are a business and your business must deliver a system. If you don’t have operational standards your quality of service will suffer.  

Those who are dedicated to moving things forward are blocked by not being able to speak to the buyer or understand the value we need to offer them. If only healthcare would listen. If only they’d open their hearts and minds to what we already know, then patient access would improve and we’d all live happily ever after.  

That’s unrealistic.  

Advocates and champions for interpreting services need to look beyond academia and the internal politics of our industry. They need to go beyond the healthcare blame game and start speaking their language. No one is in healthcare to harm others. But will we ever become part of their system if we don’t consistently understand, and add value to, the work they do?  

Only through consistent execution of operational standards will language service providers, big and small, generate improved outcomes.  This form of consistency will lead to increased efficiencies.  This combination can lead to the acceptance and integration of language services in health care. This is the key to laying the groundwork for the next generation of healthcare interpreters.  

The current state of healthcare is drastically different from what it was 20 years ago. And now the buyers' market for interpreting services has become more intelligent about what they’re buying. The main argument for the value of language services that I see over and over again is patient access.  

This is the wrong approach to take. It’s not about humanity. It is, flat out, about profits and value for every dollar spent on language services.  

We must remember that all of the work that has been done to elevate the language services industry has been done so interpreters can earn more money doing the work we love. If I won the $400M lottery I’d provide free language services and pay interpreters handsomely. But I doubt anyone reading this has had any more success in doing this than I have.  

The reality is that if we can’t earn money doing this amazing work, more and more of us will have to move on and find new work. We won’t be able to afford offering our services free of charge. Our time will be limited and, even though our hearts will break, we won’t be able to offer the services WE know are valuable. And as a result, healthcare and their patients will continue to suffer the pain of poorly executed language services.  

So how do we fix this?  

First, we must be systems minded. You have to look beyond the interpreted encounter. You have to see healthcare as your customer. Do you know anyone who works in healthcare because they don’t care about people? It can be a thankless and frustrating career. Why? Because they care so much about people and sometimes they just can’t win. This is the common denominator interpreters share with everyone else in the healthcare industry.  

The big difference is that over time healthcare has grown to understand the value every other position has in their system. That’s right. I said system. We hear this over and over. Most of us are frustrated with healthcare systems because they don’t see how we fit in that machine they’re all working so hard to maintain and fine tune. That maintenance doesn’t happen just to improve patient outcomes. It happens because everyone needs to make money.  

All systems are designed to improve outcomes. We see them everywhere…home, hair salons, grocery stores, banks and at the doctor. Systems are consistent and predictable and improve efficiencies which improve the bottom line.  

Consistency is key. And you need to think about this in order to see healthcare interpreting continue to grow as a value-added part of the healthcare system. Look beyond the encounter. From the time someone identifies that there is a need in order to see a limited English-speaking patient to the time they receive and pay the bill healthcare requires a systematic approach to the entire experience.  

This entire process will touch a variety of people with roles and responsibilities that are equally as varied. These touch points go well beyond the encounter. Your interpreting services impact an entire system. And if you don’t consider this in your approach to interpreting you’ll eventually lose the perception of your value.  

Interpreting services need to be consistent in order to be predictable. Why is predictability important? It creates improved efficiencies throughout healthcare’s systems that create a better value for dollars spent. Healthcare should be able to expect the same interpreting service, regardless of person or language. Period.  

A systematic approach to operating standards is the key to building our profession. Consistency and efficiency generate cheerleaders for your services. Managers are granted increases in their budget lines because they are always working to add value to their organization.  

Interpreters find consistent employment that offers an amazing and rewarding career. Future interpreters and language service buyers will see the value in the work we do. Eventually interpreting services will be seen and recognized as part of the healthcare industry. You won’t be an afterthought.  You won’t be longing to deliver your services without hope of a career. You will be accepted and understood by an industry that desperately needs your services.  

There are more and more great healthcare interpreters that are leaving our industry because their value is not understood. When good ones leave, it keeps the future generation from building and entering the healthcare interpreting world. This is a gross disservice and we need to work together to keep this from happening.  

Good interpreters don’t work with the expectation of being rich. But no interpreter should work to make extra cash. Our work is too important to be a side job. So you need to consider how you can grow your profession and ‘train’ healthcare to understand and appreciate your value. You need to approach your work through systems thinking: Standards, Consistency, Efficiency. Money talks and only demonstrating value for every dollar spent on you will grow your business, department and organization.  

How will you offer the same service, regardless of person or language? What will you do to deliver consistent services that increase efficiencies for your customers? 


© Connecting Cultures Inc. 2018