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More Docs, Patients Not Speaking Same Language

Languages spoken by medical residents and patients in U.S. may not match up

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 10, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- People applying to become medical residents in the United States speak a wide range of non-English languages, but many aren't the languages spoken by patients with limited English skills, according to a research letter published in the Dec. 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a theme issue on medical education.

More than 25 million U.S. residents speak limited English, which represents an increase of 80 percent from 1990 to 2010. About two-thirds of them speak Spanish, the researchers said. But only 21 percent of 53,000 people who applied for medical residency in 2013 have advanced Spanish skills, according to the study.

More than four out of five applicants reported some proficiency in at least one non-English language, the researchers found. The most common languages were: Spanish, Hindi, French, Urdu, and Arabic. For every 100,000 people with limited English, there were 105 medical residency applicants who were highly skilled in a non-English language. The researchers identified an overabundance of Hindi-speaking applicants and too few who spoke Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, and Tagalog -- four of the five top languages spoken by people with limited English.

"Further research is needed on whether increasing the number of bilingual residents, educating trainees on language services, or implementing medical Spanish courses as a supplement to (not a substitute for) interpreter use would improve care for limited-English-proficiency patients," Lisa Diamond, M.D., M.P.H., of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and colleagues write.

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