Overcoming language barriers with foreign-language speaking patients: a survey to investigate intra-hospital variation in attitudes and practices

BMC Health Serv Res. 2009 Oct 15:9:187. doi: 10.1186/1472-6963-9-187.


Background: Use of available interpreter services by hospital clinical staff is often suboptimal, despite evidence that trained interpreters contribute to quality of care and patient safety. Examination of intra-hospital variations in attitudes and practices regarding interpreter use can contribute to identifying factors that facilitate good practice. The purpose of this study was to describe attitudes, practices and preferences regarding communication with limited French proficiency (LFP) patients, examine how these vary across professions and departments within the hospital, and identify factors associated with good practices.

Methods: A self-administered questionnaire was mailed to random samples of 700 doctors, 700 nurses and 93 social workers at the Geneva University Hospitals, Switzerland.

Results: Seventy percent of respondents encounter LFP patients at least once a month, but this varied by department. 66% of respondents said they preferred working with ad hoc interpreters (patient's family and bilingual staff), mainly because these were easier to access. During the 6 months preceding the study, ad hoc interpreters were used at least once by 71% of respondents, and professional interpreters were used at least once by 51%. Overall, only nine percent of respondents had received any training in how and why to work with a trained interpreter. Only 23.2% of respondents said the clinical service in which they currently worked encouraged them to use professional interpreters. Respondents working in services where use of professional interpreters was encouraged were more likely to be of the opinion that the hospital should systematically provide a professional interpreter to LFP patients (40.3%) as compared with those working in a department that discouraged use of professional interpreters (15.5%) and they used professional interpreters more often during the previous 6 months.

Conclusion: Attitudes and practices regarding communication with LFP patients vary across professions and hospital departments. In order to foster an institution-wide culture conducive to ensuring adequate communication with LFP patients will require both the development of a hospital-wide policy and service-level activities aimed at reinforcing this policy and putting it into practice.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Communication Barriers*
  • France
  • Hospitals, University
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Mandatory Programs
  • Medical Staff, Hospital* / psychology
  • Medical Staff, Hospital* / statistics & numerical data
  • Professional-Patient Relations*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Switzerland