No difference in emergency department length of stay for patients with limited proficiency in English

South Med J. 2014 Jan;107(1):1-5. doi: 10.1097/SMJ.0000000000000037.


Objectives: The population of the United States continues to diversify, with an increasing percentage of individuals who have limited English proficiency (LEP). A major concern facing emergency departments (EDs) around the country is increasing length of stay (LOS). Although multiple studies have shown racial and ethnic disparities in waiting time and LOS, no studies have examined specifically whether patients with LEP have a different LOS than English-speaking (ES) patients. In addition, no studies have examined whether the use of interpreters by patients with LEP has a significant impact on LOS. We hypothesized that there was a significant difference in LOS when comparing patients with LEP and ES patients and patients with LEP who used interpreters versus patients with LEP who did not.

Methods: This was a prospective cohort study with LOS data collected from a level I ED patient tracking software program from October 2011 to December 2011. The primary language preferred by the patient was indicated at the time of triage and registration and the patient's use of an interpreter also was recorded. The patient's demographic data, ED visit information, and LOS were prospectively entered into an Excel spreadsheet. Percentages were compared using 95% confidence intervals and LOS was analyzed using the Student t test. With >100 subjects per group, our study had 80% power (ie, a power of 0.8) to determine a 15% difference in proportions between groups or a difference of 120 minutes (assuming a standard deviation of 300 minutes on both means).

Results: Data were collected from a total of 121 ES patients and 124 patients with LEP. In the LEP group were the languages of Spanish, Navajo, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, and American Sign Language. Fifty-eight percent of patients with LEP used an interpreter. There were no differences between ES patients and patients with LEP in age, sex, mode of arrival, chief complaints, acuity, percentage admitted, percentage pediatric patients, or percentage of Medicaid/Medicare recipients. More patients with LEP were self-pay (36% vs 20%, diff 16, 95% confidence interval 2-31). There were no differences in mean LOS from time of arrival to time to being seen by a provider when comparing ES patients with patients with LEP or time of arrival to time to discharge or admission request. Comparing the patients with LEP who used interpreters with those who did not use interpreters, there was a significantly different LOS from time of arrival to time of discharge or admission request (958 ± 644 vs 628 ± 595 minutes, diff 330, 95% confidence interval 84-576).

Conclusions: There was no difference in LOS for patients with LEP; however, patients with LEP who used interpreters had a significant increase in LOS compared with those who did not use interpreters.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cohort Studies
  • Communication Barriers*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Ethnicity / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Length of Stay / statistics & numerical data*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multilingualism
  • Patient Admission / statistics & numerical data*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Prospective Studies
  • United States