Unlocking Healthcare for All: Bridging the Gap in Language Translation and Accessible Communication

The pace of technology has meant we’re constantly bombarded with new abbreviations and acronyms to encapsulate this trend or that technology. Intelligent document processing (IDP) has recently exploded onto the scene as the need to automate critical business workflows has become an unavoidable business requirement to stay competitive—especially for data onboarding and management.

The groundbreaking Medicare Advantage and Part D Final Rule for Calendar Year 2024, published by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) in April 2023 significantly expanded the requirements for Medicare Advantage and Part D plans to provide translated and accessible materials to their beneficiaries. This marks a significant step toward language equity in healthcare, requiring plans to offer translated materials and communication assistance in multiple languages and accessible formats.

Complying with this ruling can be overwhelming, and that’s understandable, but if you break it down into specific areas, it might be easier than you think:

The impact of the CMS rule:
What changes does it bring for Medicare beneficiaries and how will it pave the way for a more inclusive healthcare system?

Machine translation advancements:
Can AI accurately translate complex medical information across diverse languages?

Accessible communication formats:
From accessible PDF to audio recordings to simplified text, how can we ensure information reaches everyone and that the information is both accessible and usable?

The growing need for digital

The healthcare industry, driven by cost and lack of labor, is experiencing the need to improve operational efficiency. A pivotal focus that requires urgent consideration is the overhaul of how to communicate with consumers. In a time of diverse membership demographics that requires documents to be translated quickly, conventional approaches like print and mail are proving too slow for the constantly changing healthcare environment. Obstacles presented by communication gaps in the healthcare industry emphasize the growing need for digital communication tools and mobile solutions.

Translation requirements

To get a better understanding of what organizations are facing when it comes to language translation, here is a look at the CMS Translation Requirements:

Standing availability: Plans must now offer translated versions of “required materials” on a standing basis in languages spoken by at least 5% of individuals in their service area. This expands upon the previous rule, which only required translation based on individual requests.

Identifying required materials: CMS defines “required materials” broadly to include important
documents like:

  • Annual Notice of Change (ANOC)
  • Evidence of Coverage (EOC)
  • Provider directories
  • Member handbook
  • Marketing materials
  • Customer service information
  • Claims and appeals

Language selection: Plans are responsible for determining which languages to translate based on the 5% threshold and considering additional factors like member demographics and historical requests.

Translation quality: CMS emphasizes the importance of accurate and culturally competent translations. Plans must use qualified translators and follow best practices for healthcare translation.

Just as important are the CMS Accessible Communication Requirements:

Accessible communications, Section 508 compliant documents: Plans must offer accessible communications of “required materials” upon request. The fundamental standard for communications remains WCAG-compliant, accessible PDFs. Whether accomplished within the authoring process, through post-authoring adjustments or on-demand modifications, the essential requirement is for payors to promptly provide PDFs that are compatible with assistive technology for immediate readability.

Alternative formats: Other accessible formats may be required depending on the individual’s needs. This means that braille, large print and audio files (in MP3 or DVD format) need to be dispatched quickly, within hours — rather than days — and sent via mail.

Prompt response: Plans must respond to requests for accessible formats promptly and without unnecessary burden on the beneficiary.

Impact and significance

What does all this mean? The CMS Final Rule holds significant implications for both language and accessibility in healthcare communications. This rule represents a significant step forward in ensuring equal access to information and services for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries with limited English proficiency (LEP) or disabilities. It promotes better understanding of their healthcare coverage and empowers them to make informed decisions about their care.

Some additional points to consider:

The rule sets a precedent for other healthcare organizations to follow, potentially shaping national standards for language access and accessibility.

It aligns with broader efforts to promote health equality and reduce disparities in healthcare access.

Implementation of the rule will require ongoing monitoring and enforcement to ensure its effectiveness.

Communication gaps in healthcare

Many healthcare organizations still rely on outdated methods, causing frustration among members. Yet, existing gaps, notably in distributing essential documents like bills and Explanations of Benefits (EOB) in various languages and/or accessible formats can lead to delays. Delays not only hamper member satisfaction but can also contribute to financial difficulties for both members and healthcare providers.

Here are a few approaches to address existing gaps and ensure the prompt and effective delivery of healthcare communications:

Invest in technology. Implement tech solutions offering online portals, text messaging, language and document translation and interactive voice response (IVR) for inclusive communication and accessibility.

Focus on patient preferences. Provide the ability for patients to specify their preferred communication language and format when requesting/viewing documents. This includes the language of their choice and/or accessibility format.

Embrace a collaborative approach. Collaborate with translation, accessible communications and integration services to seamlessly incorporate your environment into a process, ensuring inclusivity, language translations and accessibility for all.

Embrace automation. Utilize intelligent workflow automation software for instant multilingual conversion of critical documents like bills and EOBs.

Addressing language barriers

In the diverse healthcare landscape, language barriers present an additional layer of complexity. It is no longer acceptable for individuals to receive critical health information in a language they do not understand. Language should not be a barrier to effective communication between healthcare providers and patients.

Consider the scenario where a non-English-speaking, or LEP, patient receives postoperative care instructions in a language they cannot comprehend. This not only jeopardizes the patient’s recovery but also highlights a systemic flaw in healthcare communication. It is imperative for healthcare organizations to invest in language-accessible communication tools to ensure that vital information is understood by all patients, regardless of their primary language.

How can these problems be tackled? Here are a few instances:

  • Develop a repeatable process enabling the incorporation of both qualified translators and automation in the document translation process.
  • Deploy an adaptable solution capable of accommodating a broad range of languages to meet the necessary requirements as they arise.
  • Engage with industry experts to ensure you are adopting an accurate and sustainable approach.

The healthcare sector is changing

Embracing digital and automated communication tools presents a pragmatic response to this challenge. The immediacy of digital communication not only accelerates the dissemination of vital information to patients but also achieves this at a significantly lower cost compared to conventional print and mail approaches. Furthermore, it serves as a gateway for delivering accessible communications and language translations. The healthcare sector is at a critical point, demanding a swift shift toward communication tools that provide inclusivity and accessibility. The urgency for change is accentuated by the challenges of communication gaps, language barriers and escalating healthcare costs. Opting for a solution that ensures inclusive and accessible communications not only tackles these issues but also contributes to cost containment, enhances patient experiences and improves health outcomes.

Moving ahead, it is crucial for healthcare organizations to prioritize the development and implementation of robust digital communication strategies. The future of healthcare communication lies in embracing digital innovation to meet the evolving needs of both providers and patients, fostering a healthier and more connected healthcare ecosystem.  

Ernie Crawford is President & CEO of Crawford Technologies.