Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 117–123 | Cite as

The Use of Spanish Language Skills by Physicians and Nurses: Policy Implications for Teaching and Testing

  • Lisa C. Diamond
  • Delphine S. Tuot
  • Leah S. Karliner
Original Research



Language barriers present a substantial communication challenge in the hospital setting.


To describe how clinicians with various levels of Spanish language proficiency work with interpreters or their own Spanish skills in common clinical scenarios.


Survey of physicians and nurses who report ever speaking Spanish with patients on a general medicine hospital floor.


Spanish proficiency rated on a 5-point scale, self-reported use of specific strategies (own Spanish skills, professional or ad-hoc interpreters) to overcome the language barrier.


Sixty-eight physicians and 65 nurses participated. Physicians with low-level Spanish proficiency reported frequent use of ad-hoc interpreters for all information-based scenarios, except pre-rounding in the morning when most reported using their own Spanish skills. For difficult conversations and procedural consent, most used professional interpreters. Comparatively, physicians with medium proficiency reported higher rates of using their own Spanish skills for information-based scenarios, lower rates of professional interpreter use, and little use of ad-hoc interpreters. They rarely used their own Spanish skills or ad-hoc interpreters for difficult conversations. Physicians with high-level Spanish proficiency almost uniformly reported using their own Spanish skills. The majority (82%) of nurses had low-level Spanish proficiency, and frequently worked with professional interpreters for educating patients, but more often used ad hoc interpreters and their own Spanish skills for information-based scenarios, including medication administration.


Physicians and nurses with limited Spanish proficiency use these skills, even in important clinical circumstances in the hospital. Health-care organizations should evaluate clinicians’ non-English language proficiency and set policies about use of language skills in clinical care.


physician-patient communication interpreter language barriers nurses inpatients 


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lisa C. Diamond
    • 1
  • Delphine S. Tuot
    • 2
    • 3
  • Leah S. Karliner
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer CenterCenter for Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral HealthNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Division of NephrologyUniversity of California San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA
  3. 3.Department of MedicineUniversity of California San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA
  4. 4.Medical Effectiveness Research Center for Diverse Populations, Division of General Internal MedicineUniversity of California, San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA

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