Non-English speakers at higher risk for adverse health outcomes when hospitalized for COVID-19

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A new study by Mass General Brigham (MGB) found non-English speakers were significantly more likely to require intensive care unit (ICU) support or die during the earliest phase of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic than English speaking patients. Since then, the care of non-English COVID-19 patients has improved, however disparities between COVID-19 patients remain, according to the report.

The study, published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, was lead by Priscilla Wang, MD, general internist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The investigation involved nearly 10,000 primary care patients with COVID-19 who were admitted to the MGB Health System between March 1, 2020, and March 1, 2021.

The study’s results showed that non-English speaking patients made up 29.7 percent of COVID-19 admissions during the pandemic’s first wave and 22.7 percent in the second wave. In contrast, prior to the pandemic in 2019, non-English speakers constituted 7.7 percent of general hospital admissions. Researchers also found that non-English speakers had a 35 percent greater risk of severe illness and death during the first COVID-19 wave compared to English speakers. Researchers determined this association was not significant during the second wave.

Although their results suggested improvements in the disparities between health outcomes of non-English and English speakers during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers said significant sociodemographic disparities in COVID-19 admissions remained for over a year. According to the report, these results underscore the importance of preemptive, targeted support for non-English speakers within healthcare systems.

“We hope these findings can serve as a cautionary reminder to hospitals everywhere to proactively address the communication needs of patients with limited English proficiency prior to future surges of the virus,” said Wang in a statement. “Fortunately, language-based inequities are correctable, and improvements are starting to take place through, for example, greater messaging and materials in different languages provided within hospital and community settings.”