Limited English Proficiency Linked With Less Healthcare

Marcia Frellick

July 09, 2021

Adults with limited English skills receive far less health care than do those proficient in English, according to a new study in Health Affairs.

Jessica Himmelstein, MD, a Harvard research fellow and primary care physician at Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass., led a study of more than 120,000 adults published July 6, 2021. The study population included 17,776 Hispanic adults with limited English proficiency, 14,936 Hispanic adults proficient in English and 87,834 non-Hispanic, English-proficient adults.

Researchers compared several measures of care usage from information in the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's Medical Expenditure Panel Survey from 1998 to 2018.

They found that, in adjusted analyses, total use of care per capita from 2014-2018, measured by health care expenditures, was $1,463 lower (98% confidence interval, $1,030-$1,897), or 35% lower for primary-Spanish speakers than for Hispanic adults who were English proficient and $2,802 lower (98% CI, $2,356-$3,247), or 42% lower versus non-Hispanic adults who were English proficient.

Spanish speakers also had 36% fewer outpatient visits and 48% fewer prescription medications than non-Hispanic adults, and 35% fewer outpatient visits and 37% fewer prescription medications than English-proficient Hispanic adults.

Even when accounting for differences in health, age, sex, income and insurance, adults with language barriers fared worse.

Gaps Span All Types of Care

The services that those with limited English skills are missing are "the types of care people need to lead a healthy life," from routine visits and medications to urgent or emergency care, Himmelstein said in an interview.

She said the gaps were greater in outpatient care and in medication use, compared with emergency department visits and inpatient care, but the inequities were present in all the categories she and her coinvestigators studied.

Underlying causes for having less care may include that people who struggle with English may not feel comfortable accessing the health system or may feel unwelcome or discriminated against.

"An undercurrent of biases, including racism, could also be contributing," she said.

The data show that, despite several federal policy changes aimed at promoting language services in hospitals and clinics, several language-based disparities have not improved over 2 decades.

Some of the changes have included an executive order in 2000 requiring interpreters to be available in federally funded health facilities. In 2010, the Affordable Care Act enhanced the definition of meaningful access to language services and setting standards for qualified interpreters.

Gap Widened Over 2 Decades

The adjusted gap in annual health care expenditures per capita between adults with limited English skills and non-Hispanic, English-proficient adults widened by $1,596 (98% CI, $837-$2,356) between 1999-2000 and 2017-2018, after accounting for inflation.

Himmelstein said that though this study period predated COVID-19, its findings may help explain the disproportionate burden the pandemic placed on the Hispanic population.

"This is a community that traditionally wasn't getting access to care and then suddenly something like COVID-19 comes and they were even more devastated," she noted.

Telehealth, which proved an important way to access care during the pandemic, also added a degree of communication difficulty for those with fewer English skills, she said.

Many of the telehealth changes are here to stay, and it will be important to ask: "Are we ensuring equity in telehealth use for individuals who face language barriers?" Himmelstein said.

Olga Garcia-Bedoya, MD, an associate professor at University of Illinois at Chicago's department of medicine and medical director of UIC's Institute for Minority Health Research, said having access to interpreters with high accuracy is key to narrowing the gaps.

"The literature is very clear that access to professional medical interpreters is associated with decreased health disparities for patients with limited English proficiency," she said.

More cultural training for clinicians is needed surrounding beliefs about illness and that some care may be declined not because of a person's limited English proficiency, but because their beliefs may keep them from getting care, Garcia-Bedoya added. When it comes to getting a flu shot, for example, sometimes belief systems, rather than English proficiency, keep people from accessing care.

What Can Be Done?

Addressing barriers caused by lack of English proficiency will likely take change in policies, including one related reimbursement for medical interpreters, Himmelstein said.

Currently, only 15 states' Medicaid programs or Children's Health Insurance Programs reimburse providers for language services, the paper notes, and neither Medicare nor private insurers routinely pay for those services.

Recruiting bilingual providers and staff at health care facilities and in medical and nursing schools will also be important to narrow the gaps, Himmelstein said.

Strengthening standards for interpreters also will help. "Currently such standards vary by state or by institution and are not necessarily enforced," she explained.

It will also be important to make sure patients know that they are entitled by law to care, free of discriminatory practices and to have certain language services including qualified interpreters, Himmelstein said.

Garcia-Bedoya said changes need to come from health systems working in combination with clinicians, providing resources so that quality interpreters can be accessed and making sure that equipment supports clear communication in telehealth. Patients' language preferences should also be noted as soon as they make the appointment.

The findings of the study may have large significance as one in seven people in the United States speak Spanish at home, and 25 million people in the United States have limited English proficiency, the authors noted.

Himmelstein receives funding support from an Institutional National Research Service Award. Garcia-Bedoya reports no relevant financial relationships.

This article originally appeared on , part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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