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A Hospital Patient’s Right to Language Assistance Services


Language assistance includes the use of interpreters. Interpreters help two people who do not speak the same language to speak to each other. Interpretation can be provided by trained interpreters, bilingual staff, or telephone interpretation services. Language assistance also includes the use of translators. Translators help people understand documents written in English by rewriting those documents in languages they can read.

Why are language assistance services important in hospitals?

Over eight million people live in New Jersey. Over two million of these New Jersey residents speak a language other than English. Imagine that you are one of those non-English-speaking residents. Imagine that you are unable to get help in an emergency room at a hospital because no one speaks your language. Imagine not understanding how your doctor wants to treat your medical condition because your doctor does not speak your language. Imagine being unable to take the medication prescribed by your doctor because you cannot read the English directions about when to take it or how often to take it. The right language assistance services might help avoid these problems and many more. Language services are essential for good patient care.

Are hospitals required to provide language assistance services to non-English-speaking patients?

Federal and state laws require health care providers and hospitals receiving federal money to offer language assistance services to patients. A non-English-speaking person who visits or stays in a hospital can expect the hospital to determine what language he or she speaks and offer language assistance provided by the hospital. The hospital cannot require a patient to bring an interpreter. The hospital cannot charge the patient for language assistance.

How may hospitals provide language assistance services?

In a hospital, a patient may get language assistance through a trained interpreter, a bilingual hospital staff member, or a telephone interpreter. The hospital must provide language assistance to the patient and to any person who has a legal right to the patient’s medical information. Hospital interpreters are required to keep all information interpreted between the patient and health care provider confidential.

For translation, federal regulations do state that certain vital (very important) documents should be translated into languages other than English. Examples of vital documents are:

  • Consent or complaint forms
  • Intake forms
  • Written notices of rights
  • Written notices of denials
  • Notices about language assistance
  • Applications to participate in a program or activity to obtain benefits or services.

In areas where 5% or 1,000 people in the area speak a particular language, translated materials should be made available in that language. Where there are less than 1,000 people and the document has not been translated into that language, a sight translation or oral translation of the documents should be provided upon request.

How can hospitals make sure they provide high quality language services?

Right now, there is no certification process for interpreters or translators working in hospitals. For interpretation, hospitals should make sure that interpreters speak the languages needed and that they understand cultural nuances so that the interpretation is more accurate. Hospital interpreters should also know the necessary medical words or terms.

All patients should be provided with the same quality of care, regardless of the language they speak. Patients must also be aware of their rights and feel empowered to ask for interpretation services if the hospital does not offer it. If a patient has been denied language services and needs assistance, please call LSNJ-LAW™, Legal Services of New Jersey’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-800-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529). Hotline hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. If you are not eligible for assistance from Legal Services, the hotline will refer you to other possible resources.

This article is from the May 2011 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.

This information last reviewed 10/26/11


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