Eliminating language barriers for non-English-speaking patients

Med Care. 1996 Aug;34(8):845-56. doi: 10.1097/00005650-199608000-00011.


Objectives: More than 31 million persons living in the United States do not speak English, therefore language discordance between the clinician and patient may hinder delivery of cost-effective medical care. A new language service was developed in which interpreters are trained in the skills of simultaneous interpretation commonly used at international conferences. The interpreters are linked from a remote site to headsets worn by the clinician and patient through standard communication wires. The service is called "remote-simultaneous interpretation," to contrast it with a traditional method of an interpreter being physically present at the interview and interpreting consecutively "proximate-consecutive interpretation." The aim of this study is to assess in a randomized protocol the quality of communication, interpretation, and level of patient, interpreter, and physician satisfaction with these two language services.

Methods: The first postpartum visit with each of 49 mothers and their new born babies was assigned randomly to proximate-consecutive interpretation (control) or to remote-simultaneous interpretation (experimental). Main outcome measures included (1) the number of physician and mother utterances in the visit, (2) the quality of the interpretation, and (3) physician, interpreter, and mother preferences between the two services.

Results: The remote-simultaneous interpreter service averaged 8.3 (10%) more physician utterances (95% confidence interval [CI] 4.3, 12.4) and 9.1 (28%) more mother utterances (95% CI 6.1, 12.1). On average, there were 2.8 (12%) fewer inaccuracies of physician utterances in experimental visits compared with control visits (95% CI -5.9, 0.4) and 3.0 (13%) fewer inaccuracies of mother utterances in experimental visits compared with control visits (95% CI -5.4, -0.6). Mothers and physicians significantly preferred the remote-simultaneous service to proximate-consecutive interpretation service. Interpreters stated that they thought mothers and physicians better understood each other using the remote-simultaneous service, although the interpreters preferred to work with the proximate-consecutive service.

Conclusions: Using remote-simultaneous interpretation to improve the quality of communication in discordant-language encounters promises to enhance delivery of medical care for the millions of non-English-speaking patients in the United States.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • California
  • Communication Barriers*
  • Female
  • Hispanic or Latino*
  • Humans
  • Latin America / ethnology
  • Mothers / psychology
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians / psychology
  • Postnatal Care / methods*
  • Program Evaluation
  • Telecommunications / trends*
  • Translating*