A big disconnect: New report finds many doctors and patients don't speak the same language

Female doctor talking to male patient in hospital bed
Communication suffers when patients and doctors don't speak the same language. (Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

Despite an increase in the number of bilingual physicians in the United States, in many places there’s still a big gap between the languages that patients speak and those of their doctors.

Some areas of the country lack doctors who can speak the same language as large groups of patients, according to the first-ever national study to examine the different languages spoken by doctors.

The study by Doximity, the physician social and professional network, looked at languages spoken by physicians and patients nationally and in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. The language gap means some patients will likely have a difficult time finding a doctor who speaks their language.

"The most important conversations we have as physicians are with our patients," said Nate Gross, M.D., co-founder of Doximity, in the study announcement. "A growing body of research has shown patients achieve better health outcomes when they can communicate with their caregivers in the same language. Understanding imbalances between languages can help address communication challenges across our healthcare system."

Spanish is far and away the most common non-English language spoken by both patients and physicians, the study said.

Some of the top patient languages with the least overlap with U.S. doctors include Swahili and Sub-Saharan African, Hamitic and Near East Arabic, and Polynesian.

The top languages spoken by doctors? They are Spanish (36.2%), Hindi (13.8%) and French (8.8%).

Nearly half (44.7%) of all physicians who speak a non-English language graduated from a medical school outside of the United States. Many of these foreign graduates are immigrants to the U.S., and the language skills they bring are important in clinical settings given the diverse languages spoken by the U.S. public, Doximity said.

The report listed the top 10 metro areas with a significant language gap. The District of Columbia was number one on the list. Nashville, Tennessee, was number nine. 

The report highlights the role foreign-born doctors play in reducing the language gap. Hindi is the most spoken language behind English and Spanish in Tennessee and most states, reported The Tennessean. Many foreign-trained physicians come from places with Hindi-speaking populations. That raises concerns as the U.S. moves toward tougher immigration laws.

Federal rules passed last year require providers to provide translation services to patients who don’t speak English but didn’t provide any means for cash-strapped practices and hospitals to cover the costs.