Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 25, Supplement 2, pp 189–193 | Cite as

Let’s Not Contribute to Disparities: The Best Methods for Teaching Clinicians How to Overcome Language Barriers to Health Care

  • Lisa C. Diamond
  • Elizabeth A. Jacobs


Clinicians should be educated about how language barriers contribute to disparities for patients with limited English proficiency (LEP). However, educators must avoid developing educational interventions that increase health disparities for LEP patients. For example, studies suggest that teaching “Medical Spanish” or related courses may actually contribute to health care disparities if clinicians begin using these non-English language skills inappropriately with patients. We discuss the risks and benefits of teaching specific cultural competence skills and make evidence-based recommendations for the teaching content and methods for educational interventions focused on overcoming language barriers in health care. At minimum, we suggest such interventions include: (1) the role of language barriers in health disparities, (2) means of overcoming language barriers, (3) how to work with interpreters, (4) identifying and fixing problems in interpreted encounters, and (5) appropriate and safe use of one’s own limited non-English language skills.


communication barriers doctor-patient relationships medical education health disparities 



Dr. Diamond was supported during this research by The California Endowment. Dr. Jacobs was supported during this research by The California HealthCare Foundation.

Conflict of Interest



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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research InstitutePalo AltoUSA
  2. 2.Division of General Internal Medicine and Rush Institute for Healthy AgingJohn H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County & Rush University Medical CenterChicagoUSA

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