Digital Healthcare: Barriers and Poor Outcomes for Non-Native English Speakers

June 5, 2024
5 Min

As the healthcare landscape shifts towards digital solutions, significant challenges arise for non-native English speakers, particularly first-generation migrants. The move to digital appointment settings has introduced barriers that exacerbate healthcare disparities. In the UK, these barriers have tangible impacts on healthcare outcomes, underscoring the need for more inclusive digital health strategies.

Digital Divide in Healthcare Access

The digitization of healthcare, while offering numerous benefits, has inadvertently widened the accessibility gap for non-native English speakers. These individuals often struggle with digital platforms designed primarily in English, which can hinder their ability to access and navigate healthcare services effectively. Studies have shown that language barriers in healthcare settings lead to poorer health outcomes, increased hospital stays, and higher readmission rates (Pilarz et al., 2023).

Impact of Digital Maturity on Clinical Outcomes

The relationship between digital maturity of healthcare organizations and clinical outcomes is complex. A study examining the NHS Clinical Digital Maturity Index found that while digital maturity is linked to some positive clinical outcomes, it also correlates with longer hospital stays in certain cases (Martin et al., 2019). This suggests that while digital tools can enhance certain aspects of care, they may not uniformly benefit all patient groups, particularly those facing language barriers.

Barriers Faced by Non-Native English Speakers

Language Barriers and Health Outcomes

Non-native English speakers often face difficulties in accessing healthcare services due to language barriers. This challenge is amplified in digital healthcare settings where navigation and communication are crucial. Studies indicate that patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) experience worse healthcare outcomes, including higher rates of emergency department visits and readmissions (Diamond et al., 2019).

Digital Health Inequalities

Research has shown that digital health interventions can inadvertently exacerbate health inequalities. For instance, a scoping review highlighted that digital health services often fail to address the specific needs of disadvantaged groups, including non-native English speakers (Farre et al., 2023). This lack of consideration leads to lower engagement and poorer health outcomes for these populations.

Real-World Impacts in the UK

Healthcare Access and Continuity

In the UK, non-native English speakers often struggle with accessing primary care and maintaining continuity of care. Data from the UK GP Patient Survey revealed that patients from non-English speaking backgrounds reported lower satisfaction with access to care and continuity of care (Forbes et al., 2020). This disparity is linked to poorer health outcomes and higher rates of emergency admissions.

Economic and Social Costs

The economic impact of inadequate healthcare access for non-native English speakers is significant. Poor health outcomes lead to increased healthcare costs due to longer hospital stays and higher rates of readmission. For example, the NHS incurs additional costs from prolonged hospital stays for patients who struggle with language barriers (Pilarz et al., 2023).

Addressing the Barriers

Enhancing Digital Literacy

Improving digital literacy among non-native English speakers is crucial. Providing training and resources in multiple languages can help bridge the gap. Additionally, healthcare providers should ensure that digital platforms are user-friendly and accessible to individuals with varying levels of language proficiency.

Integrating Interpreter Services

Integrating professional interpreter services into digital healthcare platforms can significantly improve outcomes for LEP patients. Studies have shown that language-concordant care improves patient satisfaction and health outcomes (Diamond et al., 2019). Ensuring that interpreters are readily available during digital consultations can mitigate the negative effects of language barriers.


The shift towards digital healthcare presents both opportunities and challenges. For non-native English speakers, the digital divide in healthcare access can lead to poorer health outcomes and increased economic costs. Addressing these barriers through enhanced digital literacy, better-designed platforms, and integrated interpreter services is essential to ensuring equitable healthcare for all.

The digital transformation of healthcare must be inclusive, considering the diverse needs of all patient groups to prevent widening existing health disparities.