Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 20, Issue 9, pp 800–806 | Cite as

Effects of limited English proficiency and physician language on health care comprehension

  • Elisabeth Wilson
  • Alice Hm Chen
  • Kevin Grumbach
  • Frances Wang
  • Alicia FernandezEmail author
Original Article


OBJECTIVE: To determine the effect of limited English proficiency on medical comprehension in the presence and absence of language-concordant physicians.

DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: A telephone survey of 1,200 Californians was conducted in 11 languages. The survey included 4 items on medical comprehension: problems understanding a medical situation, confusion about medication use, trouble understanding labels on medication, and bad reactions to medications. Respondents were also asked about English proficiency and whether their physicians spoke their native language.

MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS: We analyzed the relationship between English proficiency and medical comprehension using multivariate logistic regression. We also performed a stratified analysis to explore the effect of physician language concordance on comprehension. Forty-nine percent of the 1,200 respondents were defined as limited English proficient (LEP). Limited English-proficient respondents were more likely than English-proficient respondents to report problems understanding a medical situation (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] 3.2/confidence interval [CI] 2.1, 4.8), trouble understanding labels (AOR 1.5/CI 1.0, 2.3), and bad reactions (AOR 2.3/CI 1.3, 4.4). Among respondents with language-concordant physicians, LEP respondents were more likely to have problems understanding a medical situation (AOR 2.2/CI 1.2, 3.9). Among those with language-discordant physicians, LEP respondents were more likely to report problems understanding a medical situation (AOR 9.4/CI 3.7, 23.8), trouble understanding labels (AOR 4.2/CI 1.7, 10.3), and bad medication reactions (AOR 4.1/CI 1.2, 14.7).

CONCLUSION: Limited English proficiency is a barrier to medical comprehension and increases the risk of adverse medication reactions. Access to language-concordant physicians substantially mitigates but does not eliminate language barriers.

Key Words

language comprehension ethnic groups access to health care Latinos immigrants communication 


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elisabeth Wilson
    • 1
  • Alice Hm Chen
    • 2
    • 3
  • Kevin Grumbach
    • 1
    • 4
  • Frances Wang
    • 2
    • 4
  • Alicia Fernandez
    • 2
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Family and Community MedicineUniversity of CaliforniaSan FranciscoUSA
  2. 2.Division of General Internal MedicineUniversity of CaliforniaSan FranciscoUSA
  3. 3.Asian & Pacific Islander American Health ForumUSA
  4. 4.Primary Care Research CenterSan Francisco General HospitalSan FranciscoUSA

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