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J Gen Intern Med. 2012 Jan;27(1):117-23. doi: 10.1007/s11606-011-1779-5. Epub 2011 Jul 20.

The use of Spanish language skills by physicians and nurses: policy implications for teaching and testing.

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Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Center for Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, New York, NY 10022, USA.



Language barriers present a substantial communication challenge in the hospital setting.


To describe how clinicians with various levels of Spanish language proficiency work with interpreters or their own Spanish skills in common clinical scenarios.


Survey of physicians and nurses who report ever speaking Spanish with patients on a general medicine hospital floor.


Spanish proficiency rated on a 5-point scale, self-reported use of specific strategies (own Spanish skills, professional or ad-hoc interpreters) to overcome the language barrier.


Sixty-eight physicians and 65 nurses participated. Physicians with low-level Spanish proficiency reported frequent use of ad-hoc interpreters for all information-based scenarios, except pre-rounding in the morning when most reported using their own Spanish skills. For difficult conversations and procedural consent, most used professional interpreters. Comparatively, physicians with medium proficiency reported higher rates of using their own Spanish skills for information-based scenarios, lower rates of professional interpreter use, and little use of ad-hoc interpreters. They rarely used their own Spanish skills or ad-hoc interpreters for difficult conversations. Physicians with high-level Spanish proficiency almost uniformly reported using their own Spanish skills. The majority (82%) of nurses had low-level Spanish proficiency, and frequently worked with professional interpreters for educating patients, but more often used ad hoc interpreters and their own Spanish skills for information-based scenarios, including medication administration.


Physicians and nurses with limited Spanish proficiency use these skills, even in important clinical circumstances in the hospital. Health-care organizations should evaluate clinicians' non-English language proficiency and set policies about use of language skills in clinical care.

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