Doctors with foreign accents perceived as less competent: University to Alberta study

Doctors with foreign accents can be perceived as less competent, shows University of Alberta research.

“We were interested to see if there was a difference in a person’s perception of a doctor’s competence depending on the doctor’s accent,” said Lorelei Baquiran, who conducted the study as part of an undergraduate thesis in the Faculty of Science.

Under the supervision of Elena Nicoladis, professor in the Department of Psychology, Baquiran’s research included Chinese-Canadian and caucasian-Canadian participants listening to an audio recording of a doctor speaking.

Some 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,” said Baquiran, whose work was supervised by Elena Nicoladis, professor in the Department of Psychology.

Bias lies at the heart of such perceptions.

“We know that the patients’ belief in their doctors’ competence is essential for high quality care,” said Nicoladis.

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

Regardless of background or the type of disease, participants rated doctors with Chinese accents as less competent than those with Canadian accents.

“Previous literature suggests that co-ethnicity, or sharing a background or accent with another person, will increase liking and perception of competence,” said Baquiran, noting that18 per cent of physicians in Canada were not born or trained in the country.

“However, our research suggests that the degree of acculturation is important. That is, we expect newcomers to adapt to our culture.”

Further research is required to prove the claim that the degree of acculturation is what is behind the speech accent effect.

“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,” said Baquiran.

The paper, “A Doctor’s Foreign Accent Affects Perceptions of Competence,” was published in Health Communication (doi: 10.1080/10410236.2019.1584779).

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