why good interpreters are so important for hospitals

If you’ve been to the airport, DMV or even the local shopping mall lately, chances are that you’ve noticed signs posted in multiple languages from English and Spanish to Chinese and Russian, just to name a few.

While this makes good sense given the changing demographics of many U.S. communities, there is a least one location where non-English speakers continue to be at a considerable disadvantage: the hospital. Indeed, this reality goes beyond just posted signs, extending even to communications between patients and providers.

While providers can certainly rely on family members to help communicate with their non-English speaking patients, experts indicate that this approach is not without potential pitfalls.

Specifically, these family members, understandably traumatized by the situation, may not be in the best frame of mind to communicate, or may simply lack the ability to accurately translate otherwise arcane medical information between the patient and provider.

As you might imagine, this scenario greatly elevates the risk of everything from missed or delayed diagnoses to prescription errors or other types of medical mistakes.

In recognition of this problem, many hospitals have expanded their interpreter services by offering either in-person translation or over-the-telephone translation. However, experts have indicated that even over-the-phone translation is sometimes less than desirable given that the interpreter can’t actually see what’s going on, again elevating the possibility — albeit on a smaller scale — of medical mistakes occurring.

It’s nevertheless encouraging to see more hospitals taking a proactive approach to protecting its patients.

If you somehow remain unconvinced that professional interpreters are needed in hospital settings, consider a 2012 study by the American College of Emergency Physicians examining interpreter errors resulting in clinical consequences. Here, the study found that the error rate for ad hoc interpreters was 22 percent while the error rate for professional interpreters was 12 percent. If the professional interpreter had over 100 hours of training, this error rate dropped to a mere 2 percent.

Stay tuned for our next post, in which we’ll take a closer look at the unique approach to interpreter services being employed at one Pittsburgh area hospital.

Source: NPR, “In the hospital, a bad translation can destroy a life,” Kristian Foden-Vencil, Oct. 27, 2014

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