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J Am Board Fam Pract. 2004 May-Jun;17(3):165-72.

Access to Spanish-speaking physicians in California: supply, insurance, or both.

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  • 1University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA.



National studies report patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) have difficulty finding bilingual physicians; however, it is unclear whether this situation is primarily a result of an inadequate supply of bilingual physicians or a lack of the insurance coverage necessary to gain access to bilingual physicians. In California, 12% of urban residents are Spanish-speaking with some limited proficiency in English. The majority of these residents (67%) are uninsured or on Medicaid.


In 2001, we performed a mailed survey of a probability sample of primary care and specialist physicians practicing in California. We received 1364 completed questionnaires from 2240 eligible physicians (61%). Physicians were asked about their demographics, practice characteristics, whether they were fluent in Spanish, and whether they had Medicaid or uninsured patients in their practice.


Twenty-six percent of primary care and 22% of specialist physicians in the 13 urban study counties reported that they were fluent in Spanish. This represented 146 primary care and 66 specialist physicians who spoke Spanish for every 100,000 Spanish-speaking LEP residents. In contrast to the general population, there were only 48 Spanish-speaking primary care and 29 specialist physician equivalents available for every 100,000 Spanish-speaking LEP patients on Medicaid and even fewer (34 primary care and 4 specialist) Spanish-speaking physician equivalents for every 100,000 Spanish-speaking physician equivalents for uninsured Spanish-speaking LEP patients.


Although the supply of Spanish-speaking physicians in California is relatively high, the insurance status of LEP Spanish-speaking patients limits their access to the physicians. Addressing health insurance-related barriers to care for those on Medicaid and the uninsured is critical to improving health care for Spanish-speaking LEP patients.

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