July 21, 2020

Transcending language barriers in health care for decades

Good communication is key to good health. During Kaiser Permanente’s 75th year, we reflect on the importance of providing care in a patient’s preferred language.

“Whenever we had problems, we could ask our doctor,” said Hui Juan Li in Cantonese, referring to herself and her husband.

It’s something so many of us take for granted — easy communication with our health care providers. But, for those who don’t speak English as a first language, it can be a major factor in whether or not they get the care they need.

To ensure high-quality care across our diverse membership, Kaiser Permanente has established cultural care centers like our bilingual Chinese care center in San Francisco. Staff members at these centers speak our members’ preferred languages and understand cultural differences, allowing them to communicate more effectively and improve access to care.

Li, a Kaiser Permanente member for more than 30 years, typically gets her care there, and from the moment she’s greeted to when she leaves, she’s able to speak and be understood in her language of choice.

“All of the doctors and nurses speak Chinese,” Li said. “Of course, if you can speak for yourself it’s better!”

Even for members who don’t live near a cultural care center, care is available in their language, with interpreters available at all our facilities, either in person or by phone or video.

A long-standing commitment to speaking our members’ language

Kaiser Permanente took its first steps to transcend language barriers in the mid-1970s, with Spanish member-services brochures and Spanish communication classes for health care practitioners. In addition, bilingual signage and Spanish-speaking personnel were placed at key patient contact positions throughout medical centers that served large Spanish-speaking populations.

Interpreter services are just one way Kaiser Permanente connects with members who speak a language other than English.

Interpreter services are just one way Kaiser Permanente connects with members who speak a language other than English. Pictured: a Spanish-language health plan services brochure from 1975.

In the mid-1980s, before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, we began providing interpreters for those with hearing and speech disabilities. By 1988, 45 bilingual San Francisco Medical Center employees, representing 35 different languages, completed advanced medical terminology courses in Chinese or Spanish to further their work as volunteer interpreters.

Around the same time, we began recording each members’ preferred language in our online appointment systems; with that data, we could match patients with physicians who spoke their preferred language. In 1990, we introduced a single phone number that members could call to get interpreter services in any language.

Jose and JoAnne Coelho, who are deaf, tour Portland, Oregon’s Bess Kaiser Medical Center in 1988 with interpreter Luann Cook.

Jose and JoAnne Coelho, who are deaf, tour Portland, Oregon’s Bess Kaiser Medical Center in 1988 with interpreter Luann Cook (far right).

Later, we worked with City College of San Francisco to create a year-long health care interpreter certification program. The first class of interpreters graduated in 1998. Graduates were trained in Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Thai, and several Chinese dialects.

Today, thanks to our Qualified Bilingual Staff program, our members can even more easily get care from practitioners who speak their language. All staff members who participate in the program — including doctors, nurses, medical assistants, and receptionists — are tested and certified in their qualifying language and given special training. 

Effective communication extends beyond language

At Kaiser Permanente, we understand that effective communication is about more than language. Each person’s personal beliefs about health care are something we take to heart.

Language, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity can all influence a person’s health care experience. Too often, these factors lead to communication breakdowns between patients and their caregivers that can result in care gaps and health disparities.

That’s why we not only provide care in numerous languages, we also train our doctors and other care team members on how to provide high-quality, culturally responsive care — meaning care that is personalized and recognizes and respects our diverse members’ unique cultural needs and perspectives.

To understand and be understood; so simple, and yet so vital as we strive to help all our members experience more healthy years. 

A history of leading the way

In 2020, our 75th year, we’re recognizing how our leadership in health and health care along with our focus on innovation — past, present, and future — support our mission of delivering high-quality, affordable health care. Our vision is to help our members and the people in our communities experience more healthy years. Learn more about our history of leading the way.