Navigating language barriers under difficult circumstances

Ann Intern Med. 2008 Aug 19;149(4):264-9. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-149-4-200808190-00008.


The proportion of the U.S. population with limited English proficiency is growing. Physicians often find themselves caring for patients with limited English proficiency in settings with limited language services. There has been little exploration of the decisions physicians face when providing care across language barriers. The authors offer a conceptual framework to aid physicians in thinking through difficult choices about language services and provide responses to common questions encountered in the care of patients with limited English proficiency. Specifically, they describe 4 factors that should inform the decision to call an interpreter (the clinical situation, degree of language gap, available resources, and patient preference), discuss who may be an appropriate interpreter, and offer strategies for when a professional interpreter is not available. The authors use a hypothetical case to illustrate how decisions about language services may evolve over the course of an interaction. This conceptual and practical approach can help clinicians to improve the quality of care provided to patients with limited English proficiency.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Communication Barriers*
  • Decision Making
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Physician's Role
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Quality of Health Care*