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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

Improving language services for hospitalized patients

Photo of medical resident with patient
Studies of patients who are not proficient in English have shown that they are less likely to understand their illnesses and will have much more difficulty communicating their symptoms or following medical advice. 

UC Davis Health System part of unique national program for patients with limited English proficiency

The best quality medical care depends on good communication between patients and health-care professionals. Studies of patients who are not proficient in English have shown that they are less likely to understand their illnesses and will have much more difficulty communicating their symptoms or following medical advice.

In an effort to improve the quality of care for hospitalized patients who can't easily communicate in English, UC Davis Health System has been selected as one of 10 institutions nationwide the country to participate in a special project designed to identify and overcome such challenges.

Called Speaking Together: National Language Services Network, the program has established a high-level learning collaborative that will identify best practices in language services and then share those findings with health professionals across the nation. UC Davis is the only medical center in California selected for the program.

While all hospitals are legally required to provide language services to people with limited English abilities, there are no federal guidelines on the most effective ways to communicate with these patients.

Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, a professor of clinical internal medicine who will direct the Speaking Together Program at UC Davis, says language differences are one of the most obvious barriers to providing quality medical care.

“Family members and hospital staff who haven't been trained in medical interpretation have all too often served as translators for patients and hospital personnel,” said Aguilar-Gaxiola, who also directs the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities. “While we've essentially eliminated many of those challenges at our medical center in Sacramento, we are determined to find even more effective and efficient ways to improve care through interpreting services.”

UC Davis has more than 40 interpreters on staff, providing translation services in 19 languages. Medical interpreters for Spanish, Russian and Hmong-speaking patients typically are the most requested of the interpretive services at the medical center in Sacramento.

For the Speaking Together program, UC Davis received a $60,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the program also gets technical assistance and training using quality improvement measures developed by The George Washington University's School of Public Health and Health Services.

Photo of doctor with non-English speaking patient
Finding effective ways to communicate with patients who have limited English comprehension is a key part of the Speaking Together project. 

The 16-month project will examine how participating hospitals communicate with non-English-speaking patients and will focus on how hospital staff can better structure and manage language services programs to provide effective, efficient and timely communications.

Ultimately, the project will help develop ways of measuring the quality of language services provided in hospital settings. It also is designed to enable hospitals to set benchmarks and measure the effectiveness of their programs when compared to other hospitals.

Proven best practices identified by the UC Davis Health System and other Speaking Together partners will be shared with health professionals across the nation, giving hospitals that serve linguistically diverse patients tangible and tested examples of effective language services.