Dismantling Barriers to Health, One Word at a Time

Emergency Room

Emergency Room (Photo credit: Mark Coggins)

I recently read an article about Deisy Garcia, a woman who filed a police report saying her husband had assaulted her and that she feared for her life. That report, filled out in Spanish, sat untranslated — and without follow up – for months until she and her two children were murdered.

No human being should be denied protection from bodily harm due to language barriers and cultural incompetence. Deisy Garcia’s death could have been prevented had she been given the protection she sought.  Her health, well-being, and ultimately her life was taken from her, and this could have been prevented. Prevention is power.

Deisy’s situation reminds me of how many non-English-speaking people who seek emergency treatment at hospitals are often left in precarious, harmful, or life-threatening situations. Consider the following cases:

  • A 7-year-old girl with an ear infection whose mother was told by a poorly trained interpreter to put the oral antibiotic in her daughter’s ears.
  • A 2-year-old who fell off her tricycle was taken from her mother by social workers because a doctor misinterpreted the Spanish words “Se pego” to mean “I hit her” rather than “She hit herself.”
  • An 18-year-old who said he was “intoxicate”, which can mean nauseated, spent 36 hours being treated for a drug overdose before doctors realized he had a brain aneurysm.

As I reflect on the events that led to the death of Deisy and the cases mentioned above, I am reminded that language barriers can be deadly and life-changing. Ensuring that language barriers do not exist between a police officer and a domestic violence survivor is equally as important as ensuring that these barriers do not exist between a patient and a provider.

There is a need for more culturally competent practices on the part of police departments, medical facilities, and other facilities that serve the public. Minorities are entitled to the same protections as the majority population, including access to preventive measures attributed to health and wellness.

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the denial or delay of medical care because of language barriers is discrimination. Any medical facility that receives Medicaid or Medicare must provide language assistance to patients with limited English proficiency.

This past year, the federal government released an enhanced version of the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Competent Services (CLAS Standards). This blueprint for cultural/linguistic competence has been expanded beyond traditional hospitals and health care centers to include human service providers. This is a great start; however, more work remains to be done.

How can we as a society work together to ensure that patients with limited English proficiency are not discriminated against when seeking medical care?

Please comment below.


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Adiyah Ali

I have over 10 years of experience in grassroots and community organizing, facilitation and training, communications and outreach, issue advocacy and policy development, and have a proven track record in advancing social and economic justice campaigns in support of marginalized and disadvantaged populations.As a Project Specialist with Campaign Consultation, Inc. I provide communications and content development support for national service clients such as the Social Innovation Fund and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service. Read more.