Doctors’ foreign accent impacts patients’ trust: University of Alberta study

A file photo of a doctor. Joe Raedle/ Getty Images

A new University of Alberta study suggests doctors with foreign accents are perceived as less competent than their peers.

Lorelei Baquiran conducted the research as part of her Faculty of Science undergraduate honours thesis.

Barquiran had Chinese-Canadian and caucasian-Canadian participants listen to an audio recording of a doctor speaking. Some of the participants heard a doctor with a Chinese accent, while others heard a doctor with a Canadian accent.

“We found that both groups rated the doctor with a Chinese accent as less competent than the doctor with a Canadian accent, regardless of the severity of the disease the doctor was discussing,” Barquiran said.

READ MORE: Study suggests patients place less trust in obese doctors

The results showed that doctors with Chinese accents were rated significantly less competent than their counterparts.

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“Previous literature suggests that co-ethnicity, or sharing a background or accent with another person, will increase liking and perception of competence,” said Baquiran.

“However, our research suggests that the degree of acculturation is important. That is, we expect newcomers to adapt to our culture. Their accent infers whether or not they are trying hard enough.”

Baquiran said while there are options for physicians to receive accent training and provide written materials to supplement verbal communication, the real issue is bias.

“We know that the patients’ belief in their doctors’ competence is essential for high-quality care,” Department of Psychology professor Elena Nicoladis, who supervised the study, said.

READ MORE: Can you suddenly develop a foreign accent?

“If a foreign accent can interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, then, as Canadians and human beings, we have work to do,” Baquiran said.

“Another important next step is to develop ways that could help prevent specific groups of doctors and other foreign-accented individuals from being disadvantaged because they speak with an accent.”

The researchers said more information needs to be gathered to prove the claim that the degree of acculturation is what is behind the speech accent effect.

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