When you don’t speak English very well, visiting the emergency room or a doctor’s office can be confusing and even scary when you’re trying to grasp vital medical information. Particularly if you feel discomfort or pain. For the millions of people living in the United Kingdom who speak English with limited proficiency, the potential for mistakes in medical care is considerable.

An interpreter sent from a professional medical translation services agency provides a vital role for the patient and physician. Obviously, because he or she serves as the communication bridge between the two parties. Often, hospitals and other medical environments provide inadequate medical interpreters services.

In such cases, the patient’s family often doesn’t think to hire a professional interpreter, or doesn’t think it necessary, opting instead to have a family member serve as the interpreter. At other times, medical staff members who speak the patient’s language at varying fluency levels step in as the interpreter.

A 2012 study published by the Annals of Emergency Medicine in the United States found that amateur interpreters made almost twice as many clinically important interpreting mistakes as professional interpreters. An example of a standard clinically important mistake amounts to the interpreter communicating a wrong medication dose.

The study evaluated 57 interpreting scenarios at two sizable pediatric emergency departments in New England. The patients observed by the study’s researchers were Spanish speakers and had problems speaking in English. Twenty families were assisted by a professional interpreter while 27 had an amateur interpreter. Ten families received no assistance from an interpreter.

The implementers of the study evaluated recorded videos of the interactions, and looked for mistakes such as additions, substitutions, omissions besides false language terms — which is when a term is made up, calling an eye an “eye-o” instead of the Spanish word “ojo”.

Altogether, the team detected 1,884 mistakes, of which 18 per cent were of vitally important clinical information.

Professional interpreters with a minimum of 100 hours of training, in turn, made mistakes connected to vitally important clinical information only 2 per cent of the total interpreted time. Professional interpreters with fewer hours of training committed mistakes 12 percent of the time. Critical medical information mistakes made by amateurs amounted to 22 percent of the total interpreted time. The number dropped slightly — to 20 percent — for patients who lacked an interpreter.

“The findings document that interpreter errors of potential clinical consequence are significantly more likely to occur when there is an ‘ad hoc’ or no interpreter, compared with a professional interpreter,” said Glenn Flores, a general pediatrics professor and director at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Dallas Children’s Medical Center, who directed the study.

The fact that trained medical interpreters, particularly those with experience, make fewer mistakes makes sense, said Flores. Seasoned interpreters “know the medical terminology, ethics, and have experience in key situations where you need a knowledge base to draw on,” he pointed out.

Studies have concluded that patients prefer having a translator help them. Moreover, accurate medical interpreters improve care and whittle down costs, by avoiding unnecessary medical tests, for instance.

Flores stated plenty of questions remain about medical interpreters services at hospitals.

For example, studies need to be undertaken on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of in-person professional interpreters versus that of video or phone interpretation services.

Flores’ findings indicate that ensuring patients are served by interpreters who have been trained for 100-plus hours “might have a major impact” on significantly reducing interpretation mistakes. The fewer the mistakes, the better for the health of patients.

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One Comment

  1. ron marsden says:

    At a recent union meeting( unite) I heard that a Spanish speaker,with little English had been Discharged from Tameside Psychiatrict Unit with no support or follow up.Has anyone any knowledge of this.

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