Quality of care improves when staff and patients speak same language

Speaking the same language as your patients may improve the quality and safety of care, according to a new study.

Older and more vulnerable patients admitted to hospital who received care from physicians who spoke their primary language had shorter hospital stays, fewer falls and infections, and were less likely to die in hospital.

The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, followed nearly 190,000 adult home care recipients who were admitted to hospital between April 2010 and March 2018, comparing patients who received care in their primary language and those who received care in a different language.

Most home care recipients in the study spoke English (84%), 13% spoke French and 2.7% spoke a language other than English or French.

French speakers who were treated by a French-speaking physician had a 24% lower chance of death than those who received care from a non-French speaking physician.

The results were even more striking for non-French or English speakers, with 54% lower odds of mortality if treated in their native language.

‘These are staggering findings that make a strong case for providing care in the same language for linguistic minorities in hospitals,’ says co-author Dr. Peter Tanuseputro, a physician scientist in the Department of Medicine of The Ottawa Hospital, Institut du Savoir Montfort and Bruyère Research Institute, Ottawa, Ontario. ‘It’s clearly easier to convey important information about your health in your primary language. Regardless, the more than doubling in odds of serious harms, including death, for patients receiving care in a different language is eye-opening.’

The authors suggest that clear, effective patient–physician communication may also improve patient cooperation and engagement, which is associated with better health outcomes.

‘We need to do more to make sure that patients are heard and understood, whether that’s by referring to physicians who speak the same language or by using interpreter services,’ says lead author Emily Seale, medical student at the University of Ottawa and Institut du Savoir Montfort, Ottawa. ‘This is not only good patient-centred care, but our research shows that there are grave health consequences when it doesn’t happen.’

Photo by Erubiel Flores


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