When Amélie Darblade relocated from France to Vancouver seven years ago, she fell ill and went to see an English-speaking physician. The experience was a stark reminder of the communication challenges faced by people whose first language isn’t English.

“I understood most of the session, but could not understand a word related to my condition,” said Amélie. “The physician wrote the name of the condition on a piece of paper for me. I went home and Googled it – the results were a little dramatic.”

“Medical terms and stress will challenge patients’ English proficiency in a health care environment,” adds Amélie, who is now a virtual health leader at the Office of Virtual Health, working on the Virtual Interpreting strategy to support patients who have a primary language other than English.

Improving access provides patients with medical autonomy

Language barriers can cause a number of challenges during a medical appointment. People who are deaf, deaf-blind, hard of hearing or have limited English proficiency (LEP) can misunderstand key medical information, which can lead to frustration for patients, as well as confusion with care plans. Many patients bring family members or friends to act as an interpreter, yet they may not be able to interpret the medical terminology, and it doesn’t provide patients with the medical autonomy they’re entitled to.

A pilot project of a virtual interpreting tool at Vancouver Coastal Health in 2020 showed that the length of stay in hospital for people who have LEP is, on average, longer than English speaking patients. Improving access to interpreters using virtual tools reduced LEP patients’ length of stay.

“Using a tool that bridges the communication between patient and provider has a reciprocal benefit because it means a provider gets accurate health information from the patient and the patient gets accurate care information from the provider. It also supports a Deaf or Hard of Hearing patient’s right to have an American Sign Language interpreter present in a medical appointment,” said Kiran Malli, director of Provincial Language Service.

Virtual health tools for interpreting and captioning​

  • Video remote interpreting (VRI): Provides on-demand, 24/7 access to 240 languages, including American Sign Language, when a patient and health care provider meet in person.
  • Interpreting services during virtual health visits: A provider can submit a request to Provincial Language Service to have an interpreter who connects to their one-to-one or group virtual health visit.
  • Closed captioning during Zoom for Healthcare virtual health visits: Option for automatic live transcription, or professional captioners/transcribers are available. ​

Learn more about the above virtual communication tools in this one-pager, and learn how to book these services for patients on the Provincial Language Service page.

A history of VRI in BC

In 2019, VRI was successfully introduced at a BC Cancer ambulatory clinic.

Use expanded to additional clinics at PHC, PHSA, Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health.

In 2020, a VRI app was installed on iPhones in BCEHS ambulances enabling paramedics to access ASL interpreters so they can communicate in real time with patients. And in January 2022, Interior Health implemented their first VRI device at Penticton Regional Hospital. In early April, VRI was rolled out at the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops.​

Access to interpreters and captioners is empowering

If a health care provider is aware of a language or communication barrier with a patient, it is the provider’s responsibility to ensure the appropriate communication tools are available for the appointment. This will help the provider communicate with the patient directly without depending on the patient’s family/friends or volunteers to act as interpreters.

Amélie’s experience happened before VRI was introduced to clinics in the Lower Mainland. Her subsequent appointment was attended by an interpreter. “The session included an examination and it was awkward with the interpreter in the room. It would have been more comfortable having a remote interpreter through VRI – and the ability to use it in privacy mode.”

Clinicians value communication tools

Before closed captioning was enabled for Zoom for Healthcare users in December 2021, Jowan Lee, professional practice lead at St Paul’s Hospital, and his colleagues communicated with patients by typing in the chat area of Zoom, which was prone to errors and inefficient.

For in-person visits in the clinic, they used speech-to-text apps on their iPhones and tablets, and held them up for the patients to read. “Closed captioning on Zoom makes communication so much easier because it’s hands free, it’s smooth and it’s reasonably accurate,” said Jowan.

Jowan Lee, professional practice lead, St. Paul’s Hospital

“Clinicians report having higher patient engagement when they use communication tools that bridge the language gap,” adds Kiran. “Patient satisfaction and health outcomes increase because they have the accurate information they need and feel empowered.”

Quick links for clinicians

The Virtual Health team leads and provides strategic direction for the virtual health initiative at PHC.

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