Language barriers and resource utilization in a pediatric emergency department

L C Hampers, S Cha, D J Gutglass, H J Binns, S E Krug
Pediatrics 1999, 103 (6 Pt 1): 1253-6

BACKGROUND: Although an inability to speak English is recognized as an obstacle to health care in the United States, it is unclear how clinicians alter their diagnostic approach when confronted with a language barrier (LB).

OBJECTIVE: To determine if a LB between families and their emergency department (ED) physician was associated with a difference in diagnostic testing and length of stay in the ED.

DESIGN: Prospective cohort study.

METHODS: This study prospectively assessed clinical status and care provided to patients who presented to a pediatric ED from September 1997 through December 1997. Patients included were 2 months to 10 years of age, not chronically ill, and had a presenting temperature >/=38.5 degrees C or complained of vomiting, diarrhea, or decreased oral intake. Examining physicians determined study eligibility and recorded the Yale Observation Score if the patient was <3 years old, and whether there was a LB between the physician and the family. Standard hospital charges were applied for each visit to any of the 22 commonly ordered tests. Comparisons of total charges were made among groups using Mann-Whitney U tests. Analysis of covariance was used to evaluate predictors of total charges and length of ED stay.

RESULTS: Data were obtained about 2467 patients. A total of 286 families (12%) did not speak English, resulting in a LB for the physician in 209 cases (8.5%). LB patients were much more likely to be Hispanic (88% vs 49%), and less likely to be commercially insured (19% vs 30%). These patients were slightly younger (mean 31 months vs 36 months), but had similar acuity, triage vital signs, and Yale Observation Score (when applicable). In cases in which a LB existed, mean test charges were significantly higher: $145 versus $104, and ED stays were significantly longer: 165 minutes versus 137 minutes. In an analysis of covariance model including race/ethnicity, insurance status, physician training level, attending physician, urgent care setting, triage category, age, and vital signs, the presence of a LB accounted for a $38 increase in charges for testing and a 20 minute longer ED stay.

CONCLUSION: Despite controlling for multiple factors, the presence of a physician-family LB was associated with a higher rate of resource utilization for diagnostic studies and increased ED visit times. Additional study is recommended to explore the reasons for these differences and ways to provide care more efficiently to non-English-speaking patients.

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