Are language barriers causing ER readmissions?
Emergency department patients who are limited or non-English speakers may be more likely to return within three days than those who speak English fluently, a new study found.
Although the difference is slight – four percent of English speakers returned to the emergency department (ED) compared to five percent of limited or non-English speakers – researchers suggest this could indicate that patients who know little or no English aren’t receiving the same level of care as those who are fluent.
“All patients who receive care in the ED or any other area deserve to completely understand their condition and care options,” says Dr. Pilar Ortega, an emergency medicine physician with Advocate Medical Group at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. “The first choice would be for the patient to have a doctor, nurse or both who speak his or her preferred language. Since that is not always possible, many hospitals have professional interpreters available in person or through phone or video 24/7 to help bridge any gaps.”
In the study, researchers found that a staff member or a patient’s family member often served as an interpreter. As a physician fluent in both English and Spanish, Dr. Ortega is very familiar with the challenges of serving both as a provider and language interpreter.
“Most patients are not aware that they have a right to receive health care in their preferred language at no cost to them,” says Dr. Ortega. “Using family members or untrained staff to fill this gap presents very real privacy and quality concerns, so it is not recommended.”
“As doctors, we want to be able to fully understand why you came to the ED. Once we make a diagnosis, being able to clearly explain medical conditions and treatments to a patient is a huge part of providing equal, inclusive care for all who need it,” adds Dr. Ortega. “Especially in the ED, where quick action is often necessary, it’s important that the patient and their family feel comfortable, informed and supported.”
As language can sometimes be a barrier to care, Dr. Ortega encourages all patients to make sure to let their care providers know if something is confusing or unclear.
“Patients are always encouraged to ask questions and become involved in their health care plan,” says Dr. Ortega. “This is especially true and even more important if there is a language barrier. Your care team will work to provide you with all the resources you need to get healthy.”
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