Language barriers in cancer care

Some patients aren't even being matched with a doctor if they don’t speak English, study shows

5:00 AM

Author | Tessa Roy

cancer cell
Jacob Dwyer, Justine Ross

Research from experts at Michigan Medicine shows that significant language-based disparities exist in patients’ access to cancer care services, and it’s well before their first appointment with a doctor. 

The audit study set up simulated patient calls from English and non-English speakers to the hospital general information lines at 144 randomly selected hospitals across 12 demographically diverse states.

The rationale provided for contacting the hospital general information line is that it serves as an initial entry point for many patients who are seeking information about hospital services, and therefore, is a highly relevant site to evaluate cancer care access.  

Despite the calls being made to hospitals in the three most common spoken languages in the United States, researchers found that the Spanish-speaking and Mandarin-speaking patient callers were provided with next steps to access cancer care only 38% and 28% of the time, respectively, significantly less than the 94% of English-speaking patient callers who were provided with next steps to access cancer care.  

“If cancer patients cannot access information about where to get appropriate cancer care services, what other critical information are they not able to access within our current healthcare system?” said Debbie Chen, M.D.  

Chen proposes various potential interventions for hospitals and healthcare systems to implement to mitigate these communication barriers.

For example, the automated messages could be accessible in different languages, and those automations could always redirect to a live person instead of disconnecting when callers don’t provide a response to menu commands.

In addition, in situations when a language interpreter is needed, the hospital general information personnel could remain on the call, as language interpreters may not be able to provide the requested information about hospital-specific services.  

Research reported in this publication was supported by the Rogel Cancer Center, University of Michigan (Discovery Award; D.W. Chen) and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under award number T32DK07245 (D.W. Chen).

Paper cited: “Hidden Disparities: How Language Influences Patients’ Access to Cancer Care,” JNCCN. DOI: 10.6004/jnccn.2023.7037

More Articles About: Cancer (Oncology) Cancer: Cancer Types Cancer: Help, Diagnosis & Treatment Community Health Future Think Hospitals & Centers All Research Topics
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of health care news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories iv chemo bags
Health Lab
Drug-chemo combo increases cancer treatment efficacy
A study finds giving a fatty acid inhibitor alongside chemotherapy could improve the treatment efficacy for patients with brain metastases from triple negative breast cancer
white coats hanging and one swinging off hanger with purple haze over them and sunshine peeking through
Health Lab
Who feels ready for residency?
Helen Morgan, M.D., of Michigan Medicine, authored a study that surveyed obstetric and gynecology residents to determine who feels prepared for the transition from medical school to residency.
close up photo of yellow pills lined up on a bright blue matt
Health Lab
New drug candidate blocks resistance to cancer therapies
A team of researchers at the University of Michigan Health Rogel Cancer Center has designed a molecule that impairs signaling mediated by two key drivers of cancer therapy resistance.
two women, one older one younger, looking concerned listening to a provider across from them with back to camera
Health Lab
Many breast cancer survivors don't receive genetic testing, despite being eligible
As cancer treatment and survivorship care relies more on understanding the genetic make up of an individual’s tumor, a study from the University of Michigan Health Rogel Cancer Center finds that many breast cancer survivors who meet criteria for genetic counseling and testing are not receiving it.
rat in blue with yellow bright brain with blue abstract background
Health Lab
Diabetes and weight loss drugs could be enhanced, shows study in mice
A network of proteins found in the central nervous system could be harnessed to increase the effectiveness, and reduce the side effects, of diabetes and weight-loss drugs such as Ozempic and Mounjaro, according to research from the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute. 
doctor with patient talking
Health Lab
Considering the patient’s perspective in inducible laryngeal obstruction care
Exploring the main topic of concern patients have when it comes to the results of their treatment for inducible laryngeal obstruction can help to increase effective treatment methods.