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When patients speak limited English, medical care can suffer

While Iowa’s certainly not one of the more ethnically diverse states in the country, it’s considerably more diverse than it once was. That’s particularly true in larger cities like Des Moines. 

However, life can still be challenging for people who aren’t fluent in English. That extends to the quality of medical care they receive.

What one study found

A study recently published in JAMA Pediatrics found that, overall, patients and their families who self-identified as having limited English proficiency (LEP) had worse outcomes than those who said they were proficient in English. The study focused on pediatric patients. Their primary languages were identified as English, Arabic, Chinese and Spanish. 

Just 14% described themselves as having LEP. However, based on their responses, they were less likely to ask questions or raise issues with medical providers than those who did. 

Of course, these cases could be complicated by the fact that the patients were children. In some families, children are the ones who translate between their native language and English for their parents and other older family members. If a child is sick, they may not be able to do that.

Nevertheless, it makes sense that if hospitals – particularly in their emergency departments – don’t have employees who are available to translate, the care they provide to non-English-speaking people can suffer. This isn’t always because the doctors can’t understand them. As the study points out, patients and family members are hesitant to ask questions when their English is limited.

Why medical language training is important

It’s not enough just to be able to call in someone who speaks a patient’s native language. They also need to be a medical professional themselves. There are professional medical interpreters. The study’s authors also recommend that more medical schools teach Medical Spanish. Some schools have medical language programs that include classes in other languages as well. The authors noted that “in this globally connected world, there is no place for linguistic isolationism.”

If you or a loved one has suffered harm caused by a doctor or other medical provider, don’t assume that they don’t have liability because of a language barrier.  It’s best to seek legal guidance.