Currently, over 25 million people are not able to speak English very well. That is according to the United States Census Bureau.
The effect of this has been felt particularly in the health sector, where the comprehension of language and communication can directly affect the satisfaction and safety of patients- and you can only imagine the risks and costs involved. We are told that Limited English Proficient (LEP) patients are generally more at risk of drug complications and highly likely to be misunderstood by physicians.
Let’s have two examples to understand better.
In 1980, an 18 year old baseball player known as Willie Ramirez was taken to a hospital in South Florida in a coma. His family used the Spanish term ‘intoxicado’ while giving their report about him. The word meant that the patient had ingested something which could be anything from food to drugs that made him sick. According to the family, Ramirez had eaten something that might have brought about his symptoms, but the doctor assumed they meant ‘intoxicated’.
The doctor thus made a ‘drug overdose’ diagnosis.
It was not long before the health team realized that the problem was actually bleeding in his brain, but it was too late because he had suffered a serious damage. Ramirez wound up quadriplegic.
Had the hospital had a professional medical interpreter, the doctor would have made a different diagnosis, and the whole thing would have ended up differently.
In 2010, a 65-year-old Spanish woman went for surgery in a hospital for the release of a trigger finger (of her left ring finger). There was no interpreter at the day of surgery and the doctor who understood Spanish was requested to be the interpreter in the course of the preoperative operation. The regular prep procedure was carried out and the right procedure was confirmed.
Unfortunately, there was stress on the surgery day since a number of other surgeons were behind schedule. The staff decided to have the patient moved to a different operating room which led to a change in personnel. The nurse who had done the preoperative assessment in particular, was not there for the procedure. Before a procedure, the team has to agree on important details concerning the patient such as identification and the right surgical site- this is known as a timeout. When the doctor spoke with the patient in Spanish, the circulating nurse mistook this for a timeout. There was therefore no formal timeout before the procedure began. The surgeon did a wrong surgery (in medical terms, he did a carpal-tunnel release as opposed to a trigger-finger release).
If the rest of the teal had interpreted the Spanish conversation of the doctor with the patient, the error wouldn’t have occurred.
The need for Professional Medical Interpreters (and translators)
Professional medical interpreters are properly trained in medical procedures and terms, and are well familiar with healthcare settings. Though bilingual and well-intentioned, people such as friends, family or untrained staff cannot be relied on because they are simply unqualified and unprepared to work as medical interpreters. Putting them in that situation is not only risky to the patient, but to your organization and the bilingual as well.
So, what is the importance of using professional medical interpreters?
It increases patient comfort
We both know that patient comfort translates to higher patient engagement, satisfaction and outcome, and such is a top concern for modern hospitals. As a health care provider, you want a better relationship with your patient to better do your job; for you to achieve that, you need to appreciate the fact that that comes when patients are comfortable with their environment. Such comfort comes from the patient’s solid grasp of healthcare info, procedures and plans. In this case, any LEP patient would require the assistance of a medically trained interpreter to make sure there is such understanding. As a provider, making sure that such understanding is taking place is as simple as collecting the preferred language of the patient at intake and posting the availability of the language services in a clear, visible area.
They prevent unnecessary tests and procedures by providing clarity
A professional medical interpreter basically increases the understanding and compliance at every step the patient takes through their journey of healthcare which reduces the risk of misdiagnoses and misunderstandings. When you particularly consider the problem of language barrier which has proven to have dangerous implications especially for patients, you will be right to conclude that without interpreters’ assistance, you (the physician) may easily miscalculate, misunderstand or even misdiagnose the condition of the LEP patient. In this case, a qualified interpreter will come in handy to decrease the risk of miscommunication and unnecessary tests and procedures. In the long run, that may result in less recurred visits, prolonged hospital stays and high expenses.
Note that besides adverse results and increased expenses, inadequate informed consent and the inability to follow treatment plans can easily lead to lawsuits.
When we offer LEP patients medical language services, our hospitals generally get a higher LEP patient engagement, enhanced LEP patient-provider communication and consequently, better LEP patient outcome. Patients who get clear and concise info about their health care and general well-being will automatically be more engaged in care plans actively, which we all want.