The impact of communication barriers on diagnostic confidence and ancillary testing in the emergency department

J Emerg Med. 2010 Jun;38(5):681-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2009.01.004. Epub 2009 Mar 14.


Background: Communication barriers (CBs) compromise the diagnostic power of the medical interview and may result in increased reliance on diagnostic tests or incorrect test ordering. The prevalence and degree to which these barriers affect diagnosis, testing, and treatment are unknown.

Study objectives: To quantify and characterize CBs encountered in the Emergency Department (ED), and assess the effect of CBs on initial diagnosis and perceived reliance on ancillary testing.

Methods: This was a prospective survey completed by emergency physicians after initial adult patient encounters. CB severity, diagnostic confidence, and reliance on ancillary testing were quantified on a 100-mm Visual Analog Scale (VAS) from least (0) to most (100).

Results: Data were collected on 417 ED patient encounters. CBs were reported in 46%; with a mean severity of 50 mm on a 100-mm VAS with endpoints of "perfect communication and "no communication." Language was the most commonly reported form of CB (28%). More than one CB was identified in 6%. The 100-mm VAS rating of diagnostic confidence was lower in patients with perceived CBs (64 mm) vs. those without CBs (80 mm), p < 0.001. VAS ratings of physician reliance on ancillary testing was higher in patients with perceived CBs (50 mm) vs. patients without a perceived CB (38 mm), p < 0.001.

Conclusions: Communication barriers in our ED setting were common, and resulted in lower diagnostic confidence and increased perception that ancillary tests are needed to narrow the diagnosis.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Ancillary Services, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Communication Barriers*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain Measurement
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians
  • Prospective Studies
  • Self Efficacy