Bridging Language Barriers for Safer Healthcare

Patient safety is an important focus for the life sciences industry, but it's easy to overlook how language is a crucial tool in engaging and empowering patients. 

date iconSeptember 15, 2023   tag iconLife Sciences   tag iconTranslation  

World Patient Safety Day, designated the 17th of September by the World Health Organization, is designed to help reduce patient harm. This year’s theme, ‘engaging patients for patient safety’, prompts us to reflect on the significance of language as an invaluable tool to engage and empower patients, their families and caregivers. After all, less than 20% of the world’s population speaks English. What could be more crucial in elevating the voice of patients than ensuring we respect their cultural and linguistic diversity? 

As language and content experts, we have seen countless times effective communication has proved pivotal in ensuring the safety and well-being of patients. Today, we delve into the depths of this discussion, exploring why language is integral to fostering health safety worldwide. 

We'll touch on how effective translation and localization can help;

  • Improve health literacy among patients
  • Adapt messaging to fit different cultures
  • Ensure effective patient engagement
  • Maximize the safety of drugs and medical devices
  • Help make digital health and remote patient monitoring more effective.

Patient safety is a critical aspect of modern healthcare. Evidence from the OECD suggests that in high-income countries about one in ten patients is harmed while receiving hospital care. In low and middle-income countries, about 134million adverse events occur annually.

In light of these figures, a growing emphasis is being put on patient safety, and here are some of the key reasons why:

  • High-profile cases of medical errors and adverse events have brought public attention and scrutiny to the topic, leading to pressure to improve from regulatory bodies and governments.
  • Medical advancements and new technologies might unlock improved patient care , but can often introduce new complexities and potential risks.
  • Beyond the vital human cost, healthcare providers can face significant financial consequences from medical errors and adverse events, including legal fees, compensation payouts - and reputational damage too.
  • Advances in data collection and big data analysis have allowed healthcare organizations to identify previously obscured patterns, trends and areas of concern in patient safety.
  • The shift to patient-centered care puts emphasis beyond simply medical treatment - on overall well-being and patient experience.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic brought into focus unique patient safety challenges, including infection control, resource allocation and remote care, as well as the need for adaptable safety protocols.

Ongoing efforts to improve patient safety often focus on awareness, education, regulatory measures and technological advancements - but one aspect that is often overlooked is the importance of language, and the vital role language services play in ensuring patient safety.

The role of language services in healthcare

Any healthcare professional will tell you how essential clear communication can be in healthcare settings. Avoiding misunderstandings about the correct dose, ensuring patients understand medical instructions, and providing clarity in patient information leaflets - all of these are important. Clear communication can be enough of a challenge when working in one language - just think of the cliche of a doctor’s impenetrable handwriting. When communicating with patients across languages, it becomes even more crucial.

So, let’s take a look at some of the areas where translation and localization can really benefit patient safety:

Understanding medical information

It’s vitally important that patients understand their diagnoses, treatment plans, patient information leaflets and other critical literature. There could be dire consequences if patients are left in doubt because of poor translations - or simply the lack of information they need in a language they’re fully comfortable with. This plays a key role in a patient’s ability to provide informed consent - they can’t even begin to understand medical information if they’re having difficulty with the language it’s provided in, let alone make an informed decision.

Want to know more about how localization expertise can help put patients first?

Post-treatment follow-up and adherence

During post-treatment or post-operative phases of care, patients need to be able to follow rehabilitation plans and follow-up appointments. Even before this, gathering accurate medical history and symptoms ensures accurate diagnosis and treatment. Not to mention that patients who can communicate in their preferred language are likely to feel more comfortable and less anxious during medical interactions, positively impacting their experience and recovery.

Cultural sensitivity

Multilingual communication includes taking into account cultural nuances and beliefs that might affect patients’ preferences, decisions and care expectations. Respecting patients’ cultural backgrounds by going beyond translation to adapt patient education materials, informed consent forms and other materials means healthcare can be aligned to better function when met with diverse cultural norms and beliefs. For example, this can range from providing materials in a native language, to providing religious spaces in a care setting and culturally appropriate food choices. 

Accessible digital and remote health

Accurate and accessible health records are crucial for improving patient safety. Electronic health records might need to be translated professionally to ensure patient data is available in multiple languages - which is a particular concern in multilingual societies and international patient care settings. There is also the increasing prevalence of telehealth services and remote patient monitoring, which often need to be made available in multiple languages to facilitate effective remote care. An expert localization partner will also have experience in ensuring this highly sensitive data is treated according to the highest security standards.

Drug labeling

Each region or nation has its own rules and standards for labeling medications. Translating these across borders not only brings the challenge of ensuring the information is accurate and comprehensible across languages, but that it meets regulatory requirements too. One of the benefits of an experienced life sciences localization partner is that they will have access to specialist translators who are adept at working with the rules and regulations in the target market - all vital to ensuring patient safety.

Health literacy and engagement initiatives

Low health literacy is a serious barrier to patients’ understanding and safety, and an even bigger challenge when health organizations are trying to target multilingual populations. Well-localized materials will be easily comprehensible to people with varying levels of literacy as it takes an expert touch to be able to maintain simplicity and readability across languages. The same process also plays a role in localizing mobile apps and creating voiceovers or subtitles for educational videos.

Patient-centered care

With the increasing importance placed on the holistic approach of patient-centered care, it’s important to remember that it can be difficult to empower patients to make informed and independent decisions about their own healthcare without a common linguistic understanding. As we’ve previously mentioned, this is a particular challenge for multilingual societies, but localization experts can help make sure materials, or even interpreters, are available for all.

Medical device safety

The user manuals, safety labels and accompanying instructions that come with medical devices must be comprehensible and compliant. Translating these materials so that they’re not only easily understood by patients but also fully compliant with the varying national rules and regulations can be made much easier with the help of an experienced partner in life sciences localization who knows target market regulations inside out.

Emergency preparedness

The Covid-19 pandemic brought into sharp focus the need for clear and effective communication in times of critical emergencies. When patient safety is so important, language barriers can really hinder the effective delivery of critical information. Emergency alerts, evacuation instructions and safety protocols can all be translated to ensure everyone affected receives and is able to understand and respond to critical information.


Patient safety is a key concern in healthcare, and language plays a vital role in ensuring that patient safety is a priority. Effective translation and localization can help improve health literacy, adapt messaging to different cultures, and ensure effective patient engagement.

The localization industry has an important role to play in this area, helping to bridge language barriers and deliver smooth communication that can directly improve care quality and patient outcomes. With an experienced life sciences localization partner, healthcare and life sciences organizations can eliminate obstacles to ensure that patients receive the care they need, regardless of their native language or cultural background.

date iconSeptember 15, 2023   tag iconLife Sciences   tag iconTranslation  

Discuss your next project with our life sciences experts

Related articles