California to track, post doctors' race, languages spoken

Information collected and shared under a new law will help determine the number of physicians with cultural and linguistic competency.

By Damon Adams — Posted Oct. 23, 2006

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California has taken a step to tell patients which physicians speak their language and have the same ethnicity.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sept. 29 signed a law requiring the Medical Board of California to compile data on cultural background and foreign language proficiency of physicians licensed in the state. Physicians are not required to tell the state those facts, but information that is collected will be reported annually on the board's Web site by statewide totals and ZIP code. That will let patients to see how many physicians speak Spanish, for example, in their community.

Eventually, the board wants to list the information under individual physician profiles on the site.

"It's trying to respond to the demographics in California, and we have so many patients who don't speak English," said California Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza. "We can all agree that the better communication and the better the connection between the physician and the patient, the better the [experience]."

Most medical boards post physician profiles on their Web sites, typically listing data such as board certification, practice address and medical education. In their profiles, Texas and New York include language services available at a doctor's office for patients, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards. But California is unique in putting both cultural and language background on its medical board site, the FSMB said.

Board leaders said other medical boards might consider adding similar information online.

" [Physician] profiles continue to be works in progress," said Dale Austin, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the federation.

In 2001, California legislators passed a law that authorized the medical board by July 1, 2003, to start collecting data on physicians' race and foreign languages as part of a physician survey filled out to renew a medical license. Physicians volunteered the information on the renewal application, but the board did not put the data on its Web site profiles.

Oropeza said the information was available to the public only through written request, so she introduced legislation (AB 2283) this year to make the data accessible to patients.

The proposal garnered support from several organizations, including Asian groups and the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, which said 40% of Californians speak a language other than English at home. The California Medical Assn. supported the bill. CMA lobbyist Brett Michelin said the association believes the information will be useful in providing greater access to care for many patients in the state.

The new law is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2007, and is intended to determine the number of physicians with cultural and linguistic competency who are practicing in the state.

Meanwhile, a growing number of Web sites offered by private physicians and companies cater to patients looking for doctors of a particular race, religious background or sexual sensitivity.

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Web profile

A new California law is designed to give patients information about physicians' ethnicity and language skills. Here are some highlights:

How it works

  • The Medical Board of California must collect physicians' cultural backgrounds and foreign language proficiencies and compile the information annually by statewide totals and ZIP code of primary practice location totals.
  • The board must post the data on its Web site.
  • Physicians are asked about their ethnicity and foreign language skills when they renew their medical license every two years. They can decline to answer both categories.

The goal

  • Determine the number of physicians with cultural and linguistic competency in the state and use the information to see which areas are underserved by physicians with those competencies.

Sources: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office, Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, Medical Board of California

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