Effects of limited English proficiency and physician language on health care comprehension

J Gen Intern Med. 2005 Sep;20(9):800-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1497.2005.0174.x.


Objective: To determine the effect of limited English proficiency on medical comprehension in the presence and absence of language-concordant physicians.

Design, setting, and participants: A telephone survey of 1,200 Californians was conducted in 11 languages. The survey included 4 items on medical comprehension: problems understanding a medical situation, confusion about medication use, trouble understanding labels on medication, and bad reactions to medications. Respondents were also asked about English proficiency and whether their physicians spoke their native language.

Measurements and main results: We analyzed the relationship between English proficiency and medical comprehension using multivariate logistic regression. We also performed a stratified analysis to explore the effect of physician language concordance on comprehension. Forty-nine percent of the 1,200 respondents were defined as limited English proficient (LEP). Limited English-proficient respondents were more likely than English-proficient respondents to report problems understanding a medical situation (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] 3.2/confidence interval [CI] 2.1, 4.8), trouble understanding labels (AOR 1.5/CI 1.0, 2.3), and bad reactions (AOR 2.3/CI 1.3, 4.4). Among respondents with language-concordant physicians, LEP respondents were more likely to have problems understanding a medical situation (AOR 2.2/CI 1.2, 3.9). Among those with language-discordant physicians, LEP respondents were more likely to report problems understanding a medical situation (AOR 9.4/CI 3.7, 23.8), trouble understanding labels (AOR 4.2/CI 1.7, 10.3), and bad medication reactions (AOR 4.1/CI 1.2, 14.7).

Conclusion: Limited English proficiency is a barrier to medical comprehension and increases the risk of adverse medication reactions. Access to language-concordant physicians substantially mitigates but does not eliminate language barriers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • California
  • Communication
  • Comprehension
  • Emigration and Immigration* / statistics & numerical data
  • Ethnicity / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physician-Patient Relations*