Almost 22 percent of people in the United States speak a language other than English at home, and 8 percent have limited English proficiency (LEP), meaning they speak English less than very well. It is also estimated that only 14 percent of the U.S. population has proficient health literacy. Individuals with LEP are more vulnerable to experiencing health disparities due to their limited ability to understand and communicate health information compared to English-proficient patients. Specifically, individuals with LEP have worse healthcare access and report getting lower quality of care compared to individuals who are proficient in English. Language access services, like translation of materials and interpretation, are an important tool for addressing disparities and advancing health equity.
OMH’s Language Access Efforts
The Office of Minority Health (OMH), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is committed to supporting meaningful access to its programs and to building capacity among health organizations to enhance the availability and quality of language access services. Key OMH language access efforts include:
- Promoting national standards: Culturally and linguistically appropriate services (CLAS) are foundational to OMH’s efforts for eliminating health disparities and promoting health equity. To that end, OMH developed the National CLAS Standards, a set of 15 action steps that provide a blueprint for individuals and health organizations to implement CLAS. OMH promotes adoption of the National CLAS Standards in our grant initiatives and by providing free, accredited e-learning programs and other resources through Think Cultural Health.
- Supporting language access programs and policy development: In October 2022, OMH announced more than $4 million in grants for the Promoting Equitable Access to Language Services (PEALS) in Health and Human Services initiative. The PEALS initiative supports the development and testing of methods used to inform individuals with LEP about the availability of language access services in health care-related settings. Through this initiative, recipients implement and evaluate strategies to enhance language access services through policy development and implementation, technology utilization, education for individuals with LEP, and education for providers, including medical support staff.
- Improving language access across HHS: OMH is also serving as a key contributor and leader in various HHS efforts to improve communication and language access. HHS relaunched its Language Access Steering Committee, which is a Department-wide effort led by the HHS Office for Civil Rights. The Language Access Steering Committee is charged with implementing the comprehensive language access goals of the 2022 HHS Equity Action Plan and updating the 2013 HHS Language Access Plan to ensure that persons with LEP have meaningful access to HHS-administered programs and activities. OMH is co-leading three of the Language Access Steering Committee subcommittees focused on oral interpretation, written translations, and accountability.
OMH calls on our partners, including grant recipients and State Offices of Minority Health, to consider how your organization can better incorporate language access into your programs, processes, and operations to help ensure your organization is providing meaningful and equitable access to its services or products. One way to do this is to consider how your organization can develop or update its language access efforts consistent with the National CLAS Standards. You can use the Blueprint for Advancing and Sustaining CLAS Policy and Practice and encourage your staff to take a Think Cultural Health e-learning program. We also encourage you to consider ways your organization can improve language-related data collection and use it to inform your language access efforts.