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Observational study to understand interpreter service use in emergency medicine: why the key may lie outside of the initial provider assessment
  1. Natalie C Benda1,2,
  2. Rollin J Fairbanks3,4,
  3. D Jeffrey Higginbotham5,
  4. Li Lin1,
  5. Ann M Bisantz1
  1. 1Industrial and Systems Engineering, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York, USA
  2. 2National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare, MedStar Health, Washington, District of Columbia, USA
  3. 3Quality and Safety, MedStar Health, Columbia, Maryland, USA
  4. 4Emergency Medicine, Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, District of Columbia, USA
  5. 5Communicative Disorders, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr. Natalie C Benda, Industrial and Systems Engineering, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 10065, USA; ncb4001{at}


Objective To characterise the use of interpreter services and other strategies used to communicate with limited English proficient (LEP) patients throughout their emergency department visit.

Methods We performed a process tracing study observing LEP patients throughout their stay in the emergency department. A single observer completed 47 hours of observation of 103 communication episodes between staff and nine patients with LEP documenting the strategy used to communicate (eg, professional interpreter, family member, own language skills) and duration of conversations for each communicative encounter with hospital staff members. Data collection occurred in a single emergency department in the eastern USA between July 2017 and February 2018.

Results The most common strategy (per communicative encounter) was for the emergency department staff to communicate with the patient in English (observed in 29.1% of encounters). Total time spent in communicating was highest using telephone-based interpreters (32.9% of total time spent communicating) and in-person interpreters (29.2% of total time spent communicating). Communicative mechanism also varied by care task/phase of care with the most use of interpreter services or Spanish proficient staff (as primary communicator) occurring during triage (100%) and the initial provider assessment (100%) and the lowest interpreter service use during ongoing evaluation and treatment tasks (24.3%).

Conclusions Emergency department staff use various mechanisms to communicate with LEP patients throughout their length of stay. Utilisation of interpreter services was poorest during evaluation and treatment tasks, indicating that this area should be a focus for improving communication with LEP patients.

  • global health
  • communications
  • patient support
  • safety

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  • Contributors NCB and AMB conceived the study with input from RJF, LL and DJH. All authors contributed to optimisation of methods. NCB completed data collection. NCB analysed the data with iterative guidance from RJF, LL, DJH and AMB. NCB drafted the manuscript under the advisement of AMB. All authors contributed substantially to its revision. NCB takes responsibility for the manuscript as a whole.

  • Funding NCB was supported by the National Science Foundation’s graduate research fellowship program (1117218). This work was also supported by the Charles and Mary Latham Foundation.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethics approval This study was approved by the MedStar Health Research Institute’s institutional review board (Hyattsville, Maryland, USA), protocol #2016-099.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Correction notice When this article first published, the title contained an error. It previously read ’Observational study to understand interpreter service use in the emergency medicine…' The use of ’the' has been removed.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

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