Breaking down language barriers for better medicine on the front line

Access to quality healthcare goes long way in bettering a person’s health, but we often neglect to consider the importance of translation and interpretation as an essential tool for saving and improving lives across language barriers.

Medical translation has many benefits, but perhaps the most important is its ability to advance medical research. Medicine is truly an international field, with researchers all across the globe tackling a wide range of medical issues and sharing their findings with medical professionals across the world.

In each case, the initial research will have been undertaken in the native language of the country in which it was conducted, which is going to have its own particular nuances and specific medical words and phrases unique to that language.

The ability to move between languages not only advances medical research, but truly enhances the sort of medical attention and overall health care provided to individuals. Here, we examine where multilingualism in medicine is key to breaking down barriers for better medicine on the front line.

Hospitals and primary healthcare facilities

Medical translators need a good working knowledge of medical science and treatments to convey information clearly and precisely. As this NPR feature reports, discussions in the hospital room that become lost in translation can have fatal consequences. What’s more, if a patient doesn’t fully understand policies, from insurance to medical history, release forms to billing, accessing medicine can become an administrative nightmare.

The NHS acknowledge that they have a “statutory and moral responsibility to patients” to provide medical translators to all the communities they serve, and aim to offer a strictly confidential service in a wide range of languages. A dedicated administrative team works to supply translators and interpreters in all cases where patients, relatives and carers may have difficulty discussing medical conditions and giving informed consent for procedures.

Luis Asciano is fluent in French and Spanish, and works as a medical interpreter in a clinic in Washington DC. “You are sort of a bridge,” he says. “And it is very important that you do not obscure the context of the conversation.” The role of the interpreter is two-fold: to convey the facts of the situation as accurately as they are able, but to do so empathetically: Medical interpreters must have an ability to convey emotion, tone of voice and assuage patients’ fears too.

However, according to an analysis published in Health Affairs, more than a third of US hospitals in 2013 did not offer patients similar language assistance. In areas with the greatest need, about 25% of facilities failed to provide such services. This despite the fact that over 60 million people in the country do not speak English as a first language. Further, studies reveal that nearly all claims for medical malpractice filed by foreign nationals in the US were the result of poor documentation in the patient’s native language.

The need for specialised translators and interpreters really can be a matter of life and death. A study by the American College of Emergency Physicians in 2012 analysed interpreter errors with clinical consequences, and found that the error rate was significantly lower (12% compared to 22%) for professional interpreters than for ad hoc interpreters. For industry-trained professionals with more than 100 hours of study, errors dropped to 2%.

As leading translation agency Global Voices point out, “Medical and pharmaceutical translation is highly specialised and requires great accuracy and expertise.” To achieve the utmost accuracy, they only work with linguists who have at least 5 years experience performing medical translations and interpretations.

With all of this in mind, then, it becomes apparent that medical translators create a better environment not only for the treatment of patients, but also their sense of ease and comfort when faced with illness or injury.

Crisis Events

Disaster response can be a truly international affair, with medical, support and logistical staff hailing from all corners of the globe. The international staff who comprise the organisation Médecins sans Frontieres work in nearly seventy countries around the world.

Instructions for disaster procedure and relief can be difficult enough to communicate within language borders, let alone across them, which is why translation accuracy is key. The misinterpretation of just one word or phrase can lead to anything from stagnation to outright disaster, highlighting the extreme importance of proper translation in the medical field.

The Translators Without Borders group respond in such crisis events with their Words of Relief Programme, the first crisis relief translation network intended to improve communications with communities during and after humanitarian crisis response efforts by eliminating linguistic barriers that can impede vital relief efforts.

Relying on translators in the field is obviously going to be of great use, but having important medical information, as well as disaster relief information, present in the native language is of great import to the recovery process as well.

In the last year, Translators without Borders have assisted in the translation and dissemination of vital documentation and advice regarding transmission of the Ebola virus and monitored social media and web communications in affected countries in order to detect where support is most needed.

From February 2015 to February 2016, roughly 712 healthcare articles in 54 languages were added to Wikipedia’s medical pages thanks to TWB volunteers. Elsewhere, developers are working to bring a digital translation tool facilitating communication with refugees from the Syrian crisis.

During such disasters, there’s just as much of an emotional and psychological toll wrought on the populace as there is a physical one. Providing support and materials in native languages is truly instrumental in providing those in need with the psychological building blocks necessary for recovering. Breaking down language barriers is therefore instrumental in facilitating medical care around the world, not just in research, but on the front line too.

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One Comment

  1. Smith says:

    Translation and interpretation help in growing the business as well as save us from language barrier.

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