Insurers should help pediatricians bridge the language gap with patients who have little or no proficiency in English, say researchers measuring the use and effectiveness of translators.

“Reimbursement for language services by private insurance companies is not currently mandated, except in California, and few private insurance companies provide reimbursement,” say the authors of “Changes in Language Services Use by U.S. Pediatricians,” published in the journal Pediatrics.

The study compares data from 2004 and 2010 for 700 pediatricians and finds that there has been just a slight increase in the proportion of doctors using formal interpreters, from 50% to 56%.

Most pediatricians rely on what the authors call “suboptimal communication methods,” meaning, for the most part, patients’ family members. While use of that method fell from 70% to 57%, that’s still too much, say the authors.

“Despite continued growth of the U.S. population with limited English proficiency, there has been only modest improvement over time in pediatricians’ use of language services,” the study states.

The use of telephone interpreters increased significantly between 2004 and 2010 in states with high growth of the Latino population.

“Telephone interpretation may be a practical necessity when the supply of in-person interpreters is low or when [limited-English-proficiency] patients or specific language groups are uncommon.”

Respondents said that the most common languages in which interpreters are needed are Spanish (92%), Chinese (13%), and Vietnamese (6%).

“A key policy implication of our work is that reimbursement for language services may be an important mechanism for enhancing access,” says the study.

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