The Need for More Prehospital Research on Language Barriers: A Narrative Review
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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Need for More Prehospital Research on Language Barriers: A Narrative Review


Introduction: Despite evidence from other healthcare settings that language barriers negatively impact patient outcomes, the literature on language barriers in emergency medical services (EMS) has not been previously summarized. The objective of this study is to systematically review existing studies of the impact of language barriers on prehospital emergency care and identify opportunities for future research. 

Methods: A systematic review with narrative synthesis of publications with populations specific to the prehospital setting and outcome measures specific to language barriers was conducted. A four-prong search strategy of academic databases (PubMed, Academic Search Complete, and Clinical Key) through March 2015, web-based search for gray literature, search of citation lists, and review of key conference proceedings using pre-defined eligibility criteria was used. Language-related outcomes were categorized and reported as community-specific outcomes, EMS provider-specific outcomes, patient-specific outcomes, or health system-specific outcomes.

Results: Twenty-two studies met eligibility criteria for review. Ten publications (45%) focused on community-specific outcomes. Language barriers are perceived as a barrier by minority language speaking communities to activating EMS. Eleven publications (50%) reported outcomes specific to EMS providers, with six of these studies focused on EMS dispatch. EMS dispatchers describe less accurate and delayed dispatch of resources when confronted with language discordant callers, as well as limitations in the ability to provide medical direction to callers. There is a paucity of research on EMS treatment and transport decisions, and no studies provided patient-specific or health system-specific outcomes. Key research gaps include identifying the mechanisms by which language barriers impact care, the effect of language barriers on EMS utilization and clinically significant outcomes, and the cost implications of addressing language barriers.

Conclusion: The existing research on prehospital language barriers is largely exploratory, and substantial gaps in understanding the interaction between language barriers and prehospital care have yet to be addressed. Future research should be focused on clarifying the clinical and cost implications of prehospital language barriers.

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