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A language barrier may limit early diagnosis of heart disease, Pitt study finds

Open Heart Surgery cardiac medical doctor nurse hospital blood operating room
Patrick Semansky
In this Nov. 28, 2016 photo, blood pumps through a bag as physicians perform open heart surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

Patients who speak little to no English are less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease, even if they have it, according to a new study from the University of Pittsburgh.

Researchers looked at survey data on patients with chest pain, which is a sign of heart disease.

English speakers were nearly three times more likely to report a prior heart disease diagnosis, compared to patients who answered the survey in a different language or used an interpreter.

These results might indicate that non-English speakers are more likely to get a late diagnosis, which carries implications for long-term health. If a patient doesn’t know they have a health issue then they also won’t know they need to take preventative measures, such as changes to diet and exercise. Furthermore, a later diagnosis increases the odds of surgery, which carries a greater risk of complications.

Lead author Brandon Herbert hypothesizes a couple of different reasons behind this disparity; one is the language barrier prevents physicians from understanding what their patients need.

“Then the second possibility is if they did receive a diagnosis, but the physician can’t put the diagnosis in terms for the patient to understand,” he said.

These findings, said Herbert, stress the importance of having a trained medical interpreter present during doctor’s appointments. Sometimes a patient will bring a bilingual family member to translate. But because health care is personal and medical terms can be technical, this assistance is often not enough.

The study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open.