Non-English Speakers Costing Physician Practices $19,000 a Year, Study Finds

San Diego Business Journal Staff

Treating patients who speak little-to-no English costs individual physician practices on average $19,000 a year, according to a report released here last week.

Philadelphia-based American College of Physicians, a national organization representing 120,000 internal medicine physicians, related subspecialists and medical students released that finding last week during its annual meeting. More than 6,000 medical professionals attended the four-day event staged at the San Diego Convention Center.

The report is titled “Language Services for Patients with Limited English Proficiency: Results of a National Survey of Internal Medicine Physicians.� In it, a random sample of 2,077 physicians nationwide responded.

“Two-thirds of the internists in our survey reported having trouble with patients of limited English proficiency,� said Dr. William Golden, noting that Spanish-speaking patients represented the largest pool, especially in a region such as San Diego.

Chinese, Russian, Korean and Vietnamese, respectively, were the most predominantly reported languages after Spanish.

Golden is outgoing chair of the ACP’s board.

Outgoing President Dr. Lynne Kirk commented on the need for more standardized medical literature to be published in multiple languages to help ease the burden placed on physicians.

“The ability to communicate back and forth is extremely critical,� said Kirk. “It doesn’t matter how brilliant a physician is … unless a patient understands how complex their illness is.�

According to Golden, the added costs range from paying a translator to the extra time spent trying to get non-English speakers to explain their ailments and understand directions on their treatments.

Although not directly addressed in the survey, the costs caused by unnecessary X-rays, blood work and other diagnostic tests prompted by a lack of communication is also great, Golden said.

While many physicians rely on patients’ family members to translate, the practice raises several ethical and legal dilemmas in terms of accuracy and privacy, especially when a child translates for an adult. Office staff can also be affected when paperwork and billing has to be discussed.

“I think clearly the amount of money that could be saved is enormous,� Golden said.
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