Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 26, Issue 7, pp 712–717

Patterns of Interpreter Use for Hospitalized Patients with Limited English Proficiency

  • Yael Schenker
  • Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable
  • Dana Nickleach
  • Leah S. Karliner
Original Research

DOI: 10.1007/s11606-010-1619-z

Cite this article as:
Schenker, Y., Pérez-Stable, E.J., Nickleach, D. et al. J GEN INTERN MED (2011) 26: 712. doi:10.1007/s11606-010-1619-z



Professional interpreter use improves the quality of care for patients with limited English proficiency (LEP), but little is known about interpreter use in the hospital.


Evaluate interpreter use for clinical encounters in the hospital.




Hospitalized Spanish and Chinese-speaking LEP patients.


Patient reported use of interpreters during hospitalization.


Among 234 patients, 57% reported that any kind of interpreter was present with the physician at admission, 60% with physicians during hospitalization, and 37% with nurses since admission. The use of professional interpreters with physicians was infrequent overall (17% at admission and 14% since admission), but even less common for encounters with nurses (4%, p < 0.0001). Use of a family member, friend or other patient as interpreter was more common with physicians (28% at admission, 23% since admission) than with nurses (18%, p = 0.008). Few patients reported that physicians spoke their language well (19% at admission, 12% since admission) and even fewer reported that nurses spoke their language well (6%, p = 0.0001). Patients were more likely to report that they either “got by” without an interpreter or were barely spoken to at all with nurses (38%) than with physicians at admission (14%) or since admission (15%, p < 0.0001).


Interpreter use varied by type of clinical contact, but was overall more common with physicians than with nurses. Professional interpreters were rarely used. With physicians, use of ad hoc interpreters such as family or friends was most common; with nurses, patients often reported, “getting by” without an interpreter or barely speaking at all.


language proficiency interpreter use non-English-speaking patients 

Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yael Schenker
    • 2
  • Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable
    • 1
  • Dana Nickleach
    • 1
  • Leah S. Karliner
    • 1
  1. 1.Medical Effectiveness Research Center for Diverse Populations, Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of MedicineUniversity of CaliforniaSan FranciscoUSA
  2. 2.Division of General Internal MedicineUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA