Responding to the Language Challenge: Kaiser Permanente’s Approach

Kate Meyers, MPP; Gayle Tang, MSN, RN; Alicia Fernandez, MD

Summer 2009 - Volume 13 Number 3



Objective: To inform current debates on improving health care quality for patients with limited English proficiency by identifying the drivers and processes for one large health care delivery system's implementation of particular models, key success factors, and remaining challenges for the field.

Study Design: A qualitative case study of the Kaiser Permanente (KP) San Francisco Medical Center's approach to developing linguistic access services and subsequent organizationwide initiatives.

Methods: We conducted semistructured interviews with eight current and former clinical and administrative leaders from the KP San Francisco Medical Center and national headquarters. Interviews were analyzed for key themes.

Results: KP San Francisco Medical Center developed linguistic and cultural services in response to a confluence of external and internal factors, including changing demographics, care quality challenges, and patient and clinician satisfaction issues. Early strategies included development of language-specific care modules focused on Chinese- and Spanish-speaking members while meeting broader linguistic access and cultural-competency needs through a centralized Multicultural Services Center. Additional approaches across KP regions have focused on improving interpreter services, optimizing use of bilingual staff, and creating a translation infrastructure to improve quality and reduce redundancy in written translation efforts.

Conclusions: KP's experiences developing linguistic and cultural care and services since the 1990s provide lessons about decision-making processes and approaches that may guide other health systems, insurers, and policy makers striving to improve care quality and safety for patients with limited English proficiency.

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