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Why Addressing Health-Care Disparities Starts with Language

The findings, which currently appear online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, suggest that patient-provider language barriers play a role in health-care disparities, and that providers should promote the importance of CRC screening to non-English speaking patients. A patient with limited understanding of the English language is often unable to communicate their health care needs. Communication is the most important tool utilized by health care providers to understand, diagnose and treat a patient.

The researchers performed a retrospective study for Health-Care Disparities, individuals age 50 years and older who were categorized as English-concordant (spoke English at home); other Language-Concordant (did not speak English at home but someone at their provider’s office spoke their language); or other Language-Discordant (did not speak English at home and no one at their provider’s spoke their language). Compared to English speakers, non-English speakers had lower rates of CRC screening. Compared to the English-Concordant group, the Other Language-Discordant group had similar screening levels, while the Other Language-Concordant group had lower screening levels.

Most physicians would deem it unfair for a certain group of patients (those with low English proficiency ) to receive worse care; they might assume that unfairness is unavoidable and not take responsibility to change it, but they would not consider linguistic disparities in health care to be fair. Indeed, a large survey of residents found that 96 percent indicated a patient’s culture was an important consideration in providing care. A smaller group of physicians might place responsibility to learn English on patients and point to their personal choice to come to the US and not learn the language. Regardless of one’s opinion, physicians’ standards of professionalism hold that we not base our care on judgments about patients . A trauma surgeon, for example, has a moral imperative to treat the injuries of the drunken driver in an automobile accident just as he does the innocent victim.

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