By Lauren Bricks | Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez. In February, when we became aware of the threat COVID-19 posed to the U.S., our lab Ipsum Diagnostics started work on developing our tests for the virus. We received Food and Drug Administration authorization on April 1. We also set up an online patient portal where patients would get their lab reports and information about what the results meant. We were soon getting calls from thousands of people who wanted their reports.
That’s when I noticed a problem.
Many of the callers didn’t speak English. And like all other laboratory companies, we weren’t set up to deliver results in other languages. While we had been focusing on delivering swift results, we’d forgotten to ensure that all of our patients could understand them.
The reports we send our patients contain specific and critical follow-up instructions. The ability to understand and execute those instructions could be a matter of life and death. It was unacceptable that some of our patients could be left without a clear idea of what they should do when their health is at stake.
We quickly set up a Spanish-language portal, so Spanish-speaking patients could get not just their lab report but also the information they need to understand the results in the language they understand best. The information is also in English in case they need to show the results to a doctor or their workplace.
As far as I know, we may be the only laboratory offering Spanish-language results for COVID-19 tests. And my question is: Where is everybody else? Why isn’t it standard practice to give patients their health information in the language they understand best?
One of the things the COVID-19 pandemic has shown is the importance of accurate lab tests and understandable results. Accurate tests help medical professionals fight the virus, and clear results give patients the information they need to take control of their health.
Yet across our industry, laboratory companies are failing to communicate information to a large portion of the population, non-English speakers. We haven’t given these Americans a voice in their health care choices because we haven’t done something as simple as translate their health results.
Hospitals offer translators so that patients who don’t speak English can understand important information from their doctors and nurses. But it’s rare to get lab results in a language other than English. If you don’t speak English well enough to understand medical terms, you usually have two choices: rely on someone else to translate some very personal health information for you, or forgo the information.
For patients, getting this information firsthand in clear language is powerful. Lab test results often drive the decisions that doctors and other health care providers make. If we ensure patients understand their lab reports, they can be a part of these decisions and contribute their voice to the conversation about their own health.
Protests are taking place across the country over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others. The Black Lives Matter movement has been calling for our society to identify structural issues that keep people on unequal footing. Surely unequal access to health information is one of them. By not translating lab reports, we are putting other Americans at a disadvantage, denying them the agency in their own well-being that so many of us have.
Research shows that Spanish-speaking communities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Giving Spanish speakers equal access to important health care information could help fight the virus in these communities, which ultimately protects all Americans and keeps everyone safer.
There’s no reason that, as an industry, we can’t do more to bridge these gaps. Ipsum Diagnostics is relatively small, but it only took us four days to launch a Spanish-language portal. Other companies should follow suit.
So many digital resources make translation easy and inexpensive. It is not cost-prohibitive, it’s thought-prohibitive. It took a pandemic and many Spanish-speaking patients calling for reports for me to realize we were missing the mark. I feel better about where we are at now, but I recognize there is still work to be done.
We can’t stop with just Spanish and English. We should strive to reach as many patients as possible. We plan to expand the portal to include more languages in the coming months. We want our software to become a tool that enhances provider-patient communication, not another hurdle to leap.
Patients are hungry for more medical information. They want to take control of their own health. So why are we not doing more to include patients in their own treatment? It’s time to ensure everyone has access to test results in the language they understand, so that they can be empowered to take control of their own health.
Lauren Bricks is the co-founder and chief operating officer of Ipsum Diagnostics. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.