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VOLUME 47 | NUMBER 1.2 | FEBRUARY 2012


"Does This Doctor Speak My Language?" Improving the Characterization of Physician Non-English Language Skills

Keywords: Physicianâ¬patient communication;language barriers;organizational policy.

Objective: To describe the initial impact of an organizational policy change on measurement of physician non-English language proficiency.

Study Setting: Multispecialty health care organization in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Study Design/Data Collection : In response to preliminary findings suggesting that the organization's nonvalidated and undefined three-category tool for physician self-report of non-English language proficiency levels was likely inadequate, the organization asked physicians to rate their non-English language proficiency levels using an adapted Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, a validated measure with five rating levels and descriptors. We then compared the self-reported language proficiency on the original scale and the ILR for those physicians who completed both and used regression analysis to investigate physician characteristics potentially associated with a change in score on the old versus ILR scales.

Principal Findings: Six months after the ILR scale was implemented throughout the organization, 75 percent (258/342) of physicians had updated their language proficiency ratings. Among clinicians who had previously rated themselves in the "Medical/Conversational" category, there were substantial variations in scores using the ILR scale. Physicians who spoke two or more non-English languages were significantly more likely to lower their self-reported proficiency when updating from the old scale to the ILR scale.

Conclusions: The organization was willing to adopt a relatively straightforward change in how data were collected and presented to patients based on the face validity of initial findings. This organizational policy change appeared to improve how self-reported physician language proficiency was characterized.

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