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“Enough English” to Be at Risk

Diverse medical team
Photo credit: digitalskillet/iStockphoto

A hectic Friday morning at the hospital seemed less stressful amid morning greetings and humor from colleagues.

In a team room full of hospitalists, life and death are often discussed in detail, ranging from medical discussions to joys and frustrations of the day to philosophy, politics, and more. It is almost impossible to miss something interesting.

Dr. Taru Saigal

People breaking into their native languages over the phone call from home always make me smile. The mention of a “complicated Indian patient unable to use interpreter” caught my attention.

My friend and colleague asked if I would be willing to take over the patient since I could speak Hindi. I was doubtful if I would add anything to make a meaningful difference, given the patient wasn’t even participating in a conversation. However, my colleague’s concern for the patient and faith in me was enough to say, “Sure, let me add her to my list.”

Answering my questions one by one in perfectly understandable English, he was short and sweet. Suspicious of missing out on details, I offered hesitantly, “You could speak in Hindi with me.” Then came a flood of information with the details, concerns, questions, and what was lost in the translation.

We all attend to patients and families with limited English proficiency (LEP), immigrants, and nonimmigrants. LEP is a term used to describe individuals who do not speak English as their primary language and have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English.1 Recent data from the American Community Survey (2005-2009) reports that 8.6% of the population (24 million Americans) have LEP.2 It’s a large and growing population that needs help overcoming language barriers and the appropriate use of professional medical interpreter services – a backbone to safe, quality, and cost-effective patient care.

The following day at bedside rounds, the nurse reported that the patient was looking and responding better. She could cooperate with interpreter services and could speak “some English.” Over the years, one thing that sounds more alarming than “no English” is “some English” or “enough English.” Around noon I received a page that the patient was refusing intravenous Lasix. At the bedside, however, the patient seemed unaware of the perceived refusal. Further discussions with the nurse lead to a familiar culprit, a relatively common gesture in South Asian cultures, a head bobble or shake.

The nurse reported that the patient shook her head side to side, seemed upset, and said “NO” when trying to administer the medication. On the other hand, the patient reported that she was upset to be at the hospital but had “NO” problem with the medicine.

My patient’s “some English” was indeed “enough English” to put her at risk due to medical error, which is highly likely when patients or providers can speak or understand a language to “get by” or to “make do.” Like my patient, the LEP patient population is more likely to experience medical errors, longer hospital stays, hospital-acquired complications, surgical delays, and readmissions. They are also less likely to receive preventive care, have access to regular care, or be satisfied with their care. They are much more likely to have adverse effects from drug complications, poor understanding of diagnoses, a greater risk of being misunderstood by their physicians or ancillary staff, and less likely to follow physician instructions.3-5 One study analyzed over 1,000 adverse-incident reports from six Joint Commission-accredited hospitals for LEP and English-speaking patients and found that 49% of LEP patients experienced physical harm versus 29.5% of English-speaking patients.6

I updated the patient’s LEP status that was missing in the chart, likely due to altered mental status at the time of admission. Reliable language and English proficiency data are usually entered at the patient’s point of entry with documentation of the language services required during the patient-provider encounter. The U.S. Census Bureau’s operational definition for LEP is a patient’s self-assessed ability to speak English less than “very well,” but how well it correlates with a patient’s actual English ability needs more study. Also, one’s self-assessed perception of ability might vary day to day, and language ability, by itself, is not static; it can differ from moment to moment and situation to situation. It may be easier to understand words in English when the situation is simple and less stressful than when things are complicated and stressful.

With a definition of LEP rather vague and the term somewhat derogatory, its meaning is open to interpretation. One study found that though speaking English less than “very well” was the most sensitive measure for identifying all of the patients who reported that they were unable to communicate effectively with their physicians, it was also the least specific.7 This lower specificity could lead to misclassification of some patients as LEP who are, in fact, able to effectively communicate in English with their physicians. This type of misclassification might lead to costly language assistance and carry the potential to cause conflicts between patient and provider. Telling a patient or family that they may have a “limited English proficiency” when they have believed otherwise and feel confident about their skills may come as a challenge. Some patients may also pretend to understand English to avoid being embarrassed about their linguistic abilities or perceive that they might be judged on their abilities in general.

Exiting the room, I gently reminded the RN to use the interpreter services. “Who has never been guilty of using an ad hoc interpreter or rushing through a long interpreter phone call due to time constraints?” I thought. A study from 2011 found that 43% of hospitalized patients with LEP had communicated without an interpreter present during admission, and 40% had communicated without an interpreter present after admission.8 In other words, a system in place does not mean service in use. But, the use of a trained interpreter is not only an obligation for care providers but a right for patients as per legal requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) by the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HSS) Office of Minority Health.9 In January 2010, The Joint Commission released a set of new and revised standards for patient-centered communication as part of an initiative to advance effective communication, cultural competence, and patient- and family-centered care.

Despite the requirements and availability of qualified medical interpreter services, there are multiple perceived and experienced barriers to the use of interpreter services. The most common one is that what comes as a free service for patients is a time commitment for providers. A long list of patients, acuity of the situation, and ease of use/availability of translation aids can change the calculus. One may be able to bill a prolonged service code (99354-99357) in addition to the appropriate E/M code, although a patient cannot be billed for the actual service provided by the interpreter. Longstanding CMS policy also permits reimbursement for translation/interpretation activities, so long as they are not included and paid for as part of the rate for direct service.10

The patient, however, insisted that she would rather have her son as the interpreter on the 3-way over the phone (OPI) conference call for interpretation. “He speaks good English and knows my medical history well,” she said. I counseled the patient on the benefits of using interpreter services and explained how to use the call button light and the visual aids.

Placing emphasis on educating patients about the benefits of using, and risks of not using, interpreter services is as essential as emphasizing that care providers use the services. Some patients may voluntarily choose to provide their own interpreter. Use of family members, friends, or unqualified staff as interpreters is one of the most commonly reported causes of errors by frontline staff. Using in-language collateral may help these patients understand how medical interpretation may create a better patient experience and outcome. A short factsheet, in different languages, on qualified interpreters’ expected benefits: meaning-for-meaning communication, impartiality, medical privacy, and improved patient safety and satisfaction, can also come in handy.

However, if the patient still refuses, providers should document the refusal of the offer of free language services, the name of the interpreter designated by the patient, the interpreter’s relationship to the LEP person, and the time or portions of the patient encounter that the interpreter’s services were used. Yet, language interpretation alone can be inadequate without document translation. According to one study, despite the availability of on-site professional interpreter services, hospitalized patients who do not speak English are less likely to have signed consent forms in their medical records.11 Health care professionals, therefore, need well-translated documents to treat LEP patients. Translated documents of consent forms for medical procedures, post-discharge instructions, prescription and medical device labels, and drug usage information may enhance informed decision making, safety and reduce stress and medical errors.

An unpopular and underused service needs it all: availability, convenience, monitoring, reporting, and team effort. Due to the sheer unpopularity and underuse of interpreter services, institutions should enhance ease of availability, monitor the use and quality of interpreter services, and optimize reporting of language-related errors. Ease of availability goes hand in hand with tapping local resources. Over the years, and even more so during the pandemic, in-person interpretation has transitioned to telephonic or video interpretation due to availability, safety, and cost issues. There are challenges in translating a language, and the absence of a visual channel adds another layer of complexity.

The current body of evidence does not indicate a superior interpreting method. Still, in one study providers and interpreters exposed to all three methods were more critical of remote methods and preferred videoconferencing to the telephone as a remote method. The significantly shorter phone interviews raised questions about the prospects of miscommunication in telephonic interpretation, given the absence of a visual channel.12

One way to bypass language barriers is to recognize the value added by hiring and training bilingual health care providers and fostering cultural competence. International medical graduates in many parts of the country aid in closing language barriers. Language-concordant care enhances trust between patients and physicians, optimizes health outcomes, and advances health equity for diverse populations.13-15 The presence of bilingual providers means more effective and timelier communication and improved patient satisfaction. But, according to a Doximity study, there is a significant “language gap” between those languages spoken by physicians and their patients.16 Hospitals, therefore, should assess, qualify, and incentivize staff who can serve as on-site medical interpreters for patients as a means to facilitate language concordant care for LEP patients.

The Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) also has a guide on how hospitals can better identify, report, monitor, and prevent medical errors in patients with LEP. Included is the TeamSTEPPS LEP module to help develop and deploy a customized plan to train staff in teamwork skills and lead a medical teamwork improvement initiative.17

“Without my family, I was scared that nobody would understand me”

Back to the case. My patient was recovering well, and I was tying up loose ends on the switch day for the hospitalist teams.

“You will likely be discharged in a couple of days,” I said. She and the family were grateful and satisfied with the care. She had used the interpreter services and also received ethnocultural and language concordant and culturally competent care. Reducing language barriers is one of the crucial ways to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in quality of care and health outcomes, and it starts – in many cases – with identifying LEP patients. Proper use and monitoring of interpreter services, reporting language-related errors, hiring and testing bilingual staff’s language proficiency, and educating staff on cultural awareness are essential strategies for caring for LEP patients.

At my weeks’ end, in my handoff note to the incoming providers, I highlighted: “Patient will benefit from a Hindi speaking provider, Limited English Proficiency.”

Dr. Saigal is a hospitalist and clinical assistant professor of medicine in the division of hospital medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus.


1. Questions and Answers. Limited English Proficiency: A federal interagency website.

2. United States Census Bureau. Percent of people 5 years and over who speak English less than ‘very well’.

3. Jacobs EA, et al. Overcoming language barriers in health care: Costs and benefits of interpreter services. Am J Public Health. 2004;94(5):866–869. doi: 10.2105/ajph.94.5.866.

4. Gandhi TK, et al. Drug complications in outpatients. J Gen Intern Med. 2000;15(3):149–154. doi: 10.1046/j.1525-1497.2000.04199.x.

5. Karliner LS, et al. Do professional interpreters improve clinical care for patients with limited English proficiency? A systematic review of the literature. Health Serv Res. 2007;42(2):727–754. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6773.2006.00629.x.

6. Divi C, et al. Language proficiency and adverse events in US hospitals: a pilot study. Int J Qual Health Care. 2007 Apr;19(2):60-7. doi: 10.1093/intqhc/mzl069.

7. Karliner LS, et al. Identification of limited English proficient patients in clinical care. J Gen Intern Med. 2008;23(10):1555-1560. doi: 10.1007/s11606-008-0693-y.

8. Schenker Y, et al. Patterns of interpreter use for hospitalized patients with limited English proficiency. J Gen Intern Med. 2011 Jul;26(7):712-7. doi: 10.1007/s11606-010-1619-z.

9. Office of Minority Health, US Department of Health and Human Services. National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health Care: Final Report. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2001.


11. Schenker Y, et al. The Impact of Language Barriers on Documentation of Informed Consent at a Hospital with On-Site Interpreter Services. J Gen Intern Med. 2007 Nov;22 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):294-9. doi: 10.1007/s11606-007-0359-1.

12. Locatis C, et al. Comparing in-person, video, and telephonic medical interpretation. J Gen Intern Med. 2010;25(4):345-350. doi: 10.1007/s11606-009-1236-x.

13. Dunlap JL, et al. The effects of language concordant care on patient satisfaction and clinical understanding for Hispanic pediatric surgery patients. J Pediatr Surg. 2015 Sep;50(9):1586-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jpedsurg.2014.12.020.

14. Diamond L, et al. A Systematic Review of the Impact of Patient–Physician Non-English Language Concordance on Quality of Care and Outcomes. J Gen Intern Med. 2019 Aug;34(8):1591-1606. doi: 10.1007/s11606-019-04847-5.

15. Ngo-Metzger Q, et al. Providing high-quality care for limited English proficient patients: the importance of language concordance and interpreter use. J Gen Intern Med. 2007 Nov;22 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):324-30. doi: 10.1007/s11606-007-0340-z.


17. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Patients with Limited English Proficiency.

This article was originally published by The Hospitalist.