interpreters in ers reduce miscommunication medical errors

Have you ever traveled to a foreign country and tried to navigate the area on your own? After four years of Spanish in high school or college, you may have been proficient at communicating in day-to-day situations. However, it’s likely that you still ran into words and ideas that you couldn’t communicate. If that happens while you’re traveling, you have the comfort of knowing that you’ll be home eventually — back to a country where everyone speaks the same language as you.

Unfortunately, for 25 million Americans, that is not the case. Thousands of people in Pittsburgh have limited English proficiency and reported that they spoke English less than “very well.” In many places — restaurants, grocery stories and work — those people may function just fine. But what about at the hospital?

It can be challenging to communicate your symptoms and concerns when you’re talking to a doctor, but what if everything you said had to be repeated and translated by your son or daughter? When professional translation services are not available in hospital emergency rooms, miscommunication increases significantly. A recent study reported that medical mistakes were about twice as likely if there were no interpreters or if the translator was an amateur.

Studies have also shown that patients like to have professional translators available, and evidence should encourage hospitals to offer the service. Professionals translators can help improve care and cut costs. Some unnecessary tests could be avoided, and lawsuits because of medical malpractice could be reduced.

One recent study showed that trained translators were significantly less likely to make translation errors that could pose a risk to patients than “amateur interpreters” like bilingual staff members or patients’ family members or friends.

We live in a melting pot of cultures, and it’s critical that we’re all able to communicate with each other effectively. What will it take for Pennsylvania hospitals to take a step in that direction and ensure professional interpreters are available?

Source: msnbc, “Interpreters in ER may limit medical errors: study,” Reuters, April 17, 2012

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