Can you imagine being terribly sick or injured and unable to communicate this to a doctor? What about waking up from surgery only to find that the wrong procedure was conducted? These are the chilling possibilities that millions of Americans may face when confronted with a medical issue.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 25-million Americans speak English “less than very well.” While, in the medical field, when it comes to providing quality care and solutions to those in need, proper communication is critical.
Studies have shown (2) that the ability to successfully communicate one’s symptoms and needs impacts the efficacy of treatment. It is estimated that roughly 70% of the information physicians base their diagnosis on is drawn from the patient’s history and physical exam, both of which rely a great deal on personal communication. Patients who can communicate successfully with healthcare providers receive more successful treatments, while those who suffer from a language barrier often see less success. To drive the point home, about half the physicians surveyed in California in 2003 were personally aware of cases where the quality of care suffered due to language barriers.
The Dangers of Improper Medical Translations
Ad-hoc solutions such as family members or bilingual staff are often used in lieu of professional translation services, but these very often result in tragic miscommunications. The wrong word or cultural context can quite literally lead to someone’s death if people are not careful. The use of family members and children in this way also raises multiple ethical and privacy concerns.
Even fluent speakers will often have issues with medical terminology, it is complicated, and this only reinforces the need for professional translation services.
One of the most famous cases, and the one you will find most heavily referenced on this matter, is that of 18-year-old baseball player Willie Ramirez. In 1980, Willie fell into a coma and was taken to his local hospital in South Florida. When they arrived at the hospital, his family had communicated his issue to physicians as ‘intoxicado’. This was interpreted as strictly ‘intoxicated’ when in Spanish, it could refer to the adverse effects of anything ingested. When trying to communicate that he had eaten something that was having an adverse effect, the hospital understood it as he had drank too much. The resulting misdiagnosis resulted in brain bleed that left Willie quadriplegic for life.
As for the hospital, since they were required to provide a professional interpreter and failed to do so, they were liable for a settlement of about $71 million.
In another incident, the mistranslation of English software used in a French hospital resulted in them administering overdoses of radiation for over a year. There are also cases where patients have wrongly received double mastectomies and had kidneys removed due to mistranslations.
Proper communication and professional translation services can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Other Legal Concerns and Solutions
In addition to translation mistakes, non-professional medical interpreters are often unaware of the need for confidentiality and other relevant legal and insurance matters. These concerns also arise when dealing with the medical equipment and devices patients use outside of supervised care. Instructions and warnings cannot be properly followed if they are not presented in the same language as the patient.
It can be hard to imagine all of the ways that poor communication may harm a patient or result in lackluster care. Luckily the solution is simple. While some hospitals have tried phone lines to make up for the lack of bilingual staff, the only solution that has shown to reduce mistakes to acceptable levels is having trained professional translators on hand.
It has been shown that such efforts result in shorter hospital stays and readmissions, and overall patient satisfaction is increased. It also limits the possibility of catastrophic mistakes.