Stories from COVID-19 Reveal Hospitalized Patients with Limited English Proficiency Have Always Been Uniquely Prone to Social Isolation

J Gen Intern Med. 2021 Mar;36(3):786-789. doi: 10.1007/s11606-020-06383-z. Epub 2021 Jan 6.


Through experiences with hospital visitor restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of frontline trainees at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) uncovered patient stories highlighting the unique challenges that patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) face in the hospital, particularly their vulnerability to social isolation. Here, we recount patient stories illustrative of this isolation, generated by insufficient professional interpreter use, ad hoc interpretation, and scarcity of media in preferred languages. When confronted with the social isolation faced by all patients during COVID-19, we more clearly saw the healthcare disparities affecting patients with LEP. A trainee-led videoconferencing initiative facilitating social calls between patients at UCSF and their loved ones proved especially helpful in reducing the disconnection that patients with LEP experience in the hospital. Motivated by the findings of this project, we advocate for other institutions to take similar action, such as hiring inpatient telehealth navigators and providing tablets for ad lib use. Enacting these changes will keep patients with LEP connected to their families and communities while in the hospital, an essential step towards establishing an equitable experience for patients with LEP.

Keywords: COVID-19; health equity; interpreter use; limited English proficiency; telehealth.

Publication types

  • Editorial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / epidemiology*
  • COVID-19 / therapy
  • Communication Barriers
  • Female
  • Health Services Accessibility / organization & administration
  • Healthcare Disparities / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Limited English Proficiency*
  • Male
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • San Francisco
  • Social Isolation / psychology*