More than twenty-four million people in the United States are considered limited English proficient (LEP), and numerous studies have documented the consequences of communication barriers in healthcare. These consequences include: patients’ inability to become engaged and involved in their care; the absence of crucial information—including cultural information—essential to healthcare quality; risks to patient safety arising from the misunderstanding of physician instructions; and ethical and legal lapses stemming from the absence of informed consent. Addressing healthcare rights necessarily entails coming to grips with how to facilitate communication and the exchange of information between the healthcare system and an increasingly diverse patient population.
The history of language access services in healthcare is grounded in two distinct bodies of law: the law of informed consent and civil rights law. Modern notions of informed consent law—which have their roots in the Nuremberg trials of the late 1940s—would recognize a cause of action in tort where a lack of adequate communication creates a barrier to an LEP patient's ability to consent to care. In modern healthcare law, the ability of patients to affirmatively give informed consent to treatment is considered a fundamental element of healthcare quality.