The impact of parental primary language on communication in the neonatal intensive care unit

J Perinatol. 2019 Feb;39(2):307-313. doi: 10.1038/s41372-018-0295-4. Epub 2018 Dec 10.


Objective: Language barriers contribute to suboptimal healthcare delivery. We sought to explore disparities in communication between English and Spanish-speaking parents and their neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) providers.

Study design: We compared English-speaking versus Spanish-speaking parents' understanding of their infant's diagnosis through a structured interview.

Results: Spanish-speaking parents were four times (RR 4.0, 95% CI: 1.5, 11.0; p = 0.004) more likely to incorrectly identify their child's diagnosis than English-speaking parents. Spanish speakers also self-reported lower understanding of NICU interventions. Physicians provided updates to Spanish-speaking parents in their native language only 39% of the time.

Conclusions: Spanish-speaking NICU parents more commonly misunderstood aspects of their child's care than did English-speaking parents. Providers' failed to communicate with Spanish-speaking families in their native language the majority of the time. Additional research is needed to assess the barriers to effective communication between NICU providers and Spanish-speaking parents.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Observational Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Colorado
  • Communication Barriers*
  • Female
  • Hispanic or Latino / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Intensive Care Units, Neonatal
  • Intensive Care, Neonatal / standards*
  • Intensive Care, Neonatal / statistics & numerical data
  • Language
  • Male
  • Parents*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Young Adult