The risks of having an amateur medical interpreter | Stillman Translations
The risks of having an amateur medical interpreter

Scientific research has shown, time and again, that effective communication is essential in medical environments. But the risks associated to translation and interpreting in this field haven’t always been assessed clearly and concisely. You may have a good notion of the responsibility involved in dealing with the health of LEP patients, but in order to be prepared, understanding the specific risks involved is essential. This article summarizes some case studies and research findings to help explain those risks in black and white.

If you are the head of administrative services at a healthcare organization, a doctor or even an expat living in a foreign country, you may have experienced the difficulties involved in clearly expressing medical conditions in a different language. The technicalities involved, the urgency and the potential fear involved make medical environments even more sensitive to language barriers. Professional medical interpreters are some of the most highly trained linguists. You do not want to be in a situation where these risks are involved. 

Don’t just take our word for it  

“Having a patient try to get by with limited English, using untrained bilingual staff or family members, or having clinicians use their limited language ability (for example, high school Spanish) to communicate in the patient’s language, can have dire consequences both for the patient and the clinician.” This is a quote from a study published in the Annals of Medical Family, a reputed medical journal in the US.  

In this study, doctors Jacobs, Ryan, Henrichs and Weiss analyze the federal requirements related to providing language services to LEP patients in medical environments in the US. They explore the ethical principles on which the legal requirements are founded as well as the risks involved in not abiding by them. These risks, as they conclude, do not only affect the patients’ lives, but they can also have serious legal consequences to the health services provider. 

Another study, conducted in the Emergency Departments of two pediatric hospitals in Massachusetts, found that the number of errors of “potential consequence” was significantly lower for professional interpreters than it was for ad hoc (or amateur) interpreters. After taping and analyzing the conversations between Spanish-speaking patients and their doctors, the study found that interpreters with more hours of training made about 12% of significant errors, versus 22% made by their non-trained interpreters and 20% when there was no interpreter present. 

The risks of having untrained interpreters in medical environments are many. Here are a few examples. 

The risk of breaking federal laws 

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Executive Order 13166, issued in 2000, requires federal agencies to improve access for persons with LEP, defined as those “whose primary language for communication is not English,” and who have “a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand English.” This was later implemented by the federal health care system in 2003, as part of antidiscrimination provisions. 

The regulations state that all required language assistance services must be free and provided by qualified translators and interpreters. Although the health services provider will have to bear the costs of hiring professional interpreters, they may be refunded by medical insurance, depending on their arrangement.  

The risk of malpractice lawsuits  

A study has reported that 1 in every 40 malpractice claims are caused, fully or partially, by a lack of professional interpreting. This may not seem as too high a rate in black and white, but these lawsuits tend to be extremely costly and they have a crushing effect on the health services provider’s reputation. 

A documented example of this type of risk is the case of a Cuban-descent patient who was wrongly administered a drug that made him paraplegic. The 18-year-old attended the ER and explained, in his native dialect, that he was feeling “intoxicado.” This was interpreted as “intoxicated” by an untrained interpreter who didn’t know the correct translation — in the boy’s dialect — was in fact “nauseated”. He won a malpractice lawsuit of $71 million. 

The risk of losing patient loyalty  

The success of any healthcare organization lies in having a flow of new patients, as well as retaining the existing ones. As several studies have been showing for a few years, patients expect to receive efficient customer service from their healthcare providers. The majority of patient complaints, in fact, are not related to medical treatments but refer to inadequate communications and lack of organization.  

Especially in healthcare centers with large LEP populations, having professional interpreter services can truly make a difference in patient retention. It’s simple math, once you have received apt medical treatment and high-quality customer service from your clinic or hospital, you are more prone to return in the future. If you want happy LEP customers, you cannot risk them having a negative experience with a non-professional interpreter.  

The risk to human lives 

And lastly, the most serious of risks involved in using amateur interpreting services is the negative effect misinterpretation can have on human lives and health. The young patient of Cuban descent has taught us how one simple mistranslation can lead to severe consequences to a person’s health. And similar issues have arisen with, for example, the misrepresentation of health insurance terms and conditions, which is a very sensitive field of medial translation services. 

The right to professional language services is undisputable according to federal law. Effective communication between medical staff and LEP patients is essential in providing them with the appropriate care for their lives. Professional medical translation is important to preserve your patient’s lives, so it is certainly a good investment for your medical practice. 

After reviewing this list of the main risks involved in medical environments where interpreters aren’t sufficiently trained, you may be left wondering where to find the ones who are. At Stillman Translations, we can help you find a solution to your every medical translation and interpretation need. Do not hesitate to contact us with your query.