Kaiser Permanente awarded national prize for effectively reaching across cultural and language barriers to meet patients’ needs

OAKLAND, CA – Kaiser Permanente has been awarded the prestigious “Recognizing Innovation in Multicultural Health Care Award” by the National Committee for Quality Assurance for efforts to reach across cultural and language barriers to provide health plan members with care that meets their unique needs.

“Kaiser Permanente’s innovative efforts to improve care for its culturally diverse members is a model for the nation and other health plans across the country,” said NCQA President Margaret E. O’Kane. “One in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home. Racial and ethnic differences result in substantial health disparities for millions. It’s imperative that more plans follow Kaiser Permanente’s lead.”

To address the lack of validated testing standards, measures, and tools for patient-provider language concordance – a critical component of language access in health care delivery – Kaiser Permanente led research and development of an overarching strategy in language concordance.  With funding from The California Endowment, and in collaboration with Alameda Alliance for Health, standards and the systems foundation for assessing provider linguistic proficiency was established. The collaboration pioneered the development of a new tool, the Clinician Cultural and Linguistic Assessment. The CCLA is the first and only validated and reliable language assessment tool specifically tailored to assess clinicians who self-report they speak a language other than English, and establishes a standard level in which they can communicate effectively independent of an interpreter. The CCLA tool is available in 14 languages and two additional languages are in development. So far, over 1,000 assessments have been completed inside and outside of Kaiser Permanente.

“What is meaningful and important about this recognition is that it awards our pioneering efforts to resolve the linguistic challenges faced by our patients who could not communicate with their health care providers,” said Gayle Tang, director of national linguistic and cultural programs, Kaiser Permanente. “Our initiative is the first to establish a validated assessment tool as well as the systems foundation to facilitate language concordant services.  Our research and development continues to inform the health care field, and is helping set industry standards nationally. It is incredibly rewarding to know that patients can receive care from providers that intimately understand their culture and language, and providers are encouraged to serve communities that are culturally and linguistically underserved.”

In Southern California a diverse array of languages is spoken. To match patients with physicians who are fluent in their preferred language, the Southern California Permanente Medical Group organized a task force of bilingual physicians, regional leaders and administrative representatives to research the issue and create a Language Concordance Program. The program aimed to improve patient-physician language concordance and to foster a culture that values and encourages multilingual skills.

Through this program, medical centers can match members and patients with physicians who speak their language, including Arabic, Armenian, Cambodian (Khmer), Cantonese, Farsi, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, Tagalong, and Vietnamese. The benefits of the program include improved patient satisfaction, quality, bonding rates and resource stewardship. The language concordance visit rate in primary care also increased dramatically, resulting in approximately 93,000 more linguistically-matched appointments in 2008.

According to the landmark 2002 Institute of Medicine study, “Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care,” minorities in the U.S. tend to receive lower quality health care than whites, even when such factors as medical conditions, insurance and economic status are equivalent.

Kaiser Permanente will be recognized at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Oct. 15.  The award, sponsored by The California Endowment with support from The Office of Minority Health, is part of NCQA’s efforts to improve the quality of health care in the U.S. through development of a truly multicultural health care system.

For information about other innovative multicultural health plan programs recognized in recent years by NCQA, as well as upcoming conferences on multicultural health care, visit www.ncqa.org.