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Interpreters for limited English patients shorten hospital stays

A study by UMMS researchers shows that removing language barrier key to better care, lower costs

By Lisa M. Larson

UMass Medical School Communications

June 06, 2012
   Mary Lindholm, MD

Hospital stays for patients with low English proficiency are significantly shorter when professional medical interpreters assist them during admission and discharge, according to a new study by researchers at UMass Medical School published in the  Journal of General Internal Medicine.


Limited English patients in the study who did not receive professional interpretation stayed in the hospital an average of one-and-a-half days longer than those who did. Additionally, patients who did not have access to an interpreter were more likely to be readmitted within 30 days, researchers said.

“A professional interpreter is enormously important for patients with low levels of English proficiency,” said Mary Lindholm, MD, assistant professor of family medicine & community health, and lead investigator on the study. “They often have a hard time explaining their illness and trying to understand their doctor’s instructions. Trained interpreters help patients have a better grasp of their diagnosis and treatment and in doing so, shorten the hospital stay and save money in the long run.”

Shorter hospital stays are financially beneficial for the patient and the hospital, she added.

Dr. Lindholm and colleagues analyzed medical records for more than 3,000 patients with limited English who were admitted to a university hospital between 2004 and 2007.

Most of the patients (75 percent) spoke either Spanish or Portuguese.

All of the patients in the study used an interpreter at some point during their stay, but those who had access to one specifically at admission seemed to be most likely to experience a shorter stay, Lindholm said. Additionally, those who had one present during admission and discharge were less likely to be readmitted in 30 days for the same diagnosis.

“Research has shown that patients who have low English proficiency have a better understanding of and satisfaction with their health care when professionally trained interpreters are used. But in this time of shrinking medical reimbursement rates, we were able to show how professional interpreters can also help lessen the cost of a patient’s admission and chance for readmission,” Lindholm said.