Lifesaving Language: The Need for Medical Interpreters

Lifesaving Language: The Need for Medical Interpreters

Having a professional interpreter as well as a qualified doctor just might make the difference between life and death. Modern Healthcare and The Advisory Board Company report that the number of people in the united States that speak a language other than English at home grew by 158% between 1980 and 2010. Unfortunately, the number of qualified medical interpreters employed by hospitals hasn’t grown quite as rapidly, despite the fact that the industry is one of the fastest-growing in the country. While hospitals are required to provide an interpreter in any situation that necessitates interpretation, too many rely on bilingual staff or family of the patient rather than calling in a professional interpreter.

Although medical interpretation is often considered to be one of the more “entry-level” areas of interpretation, precise and accurate interpretation is still just as important as it is in any other interpreting situation. An article published in the Journal for Healthcare Quality reported that language barriers often lead to medication errors or lack of informed consent to medical procedures. Although many of these errors are easily corrected and not life threatening, all have an impact on the patient’s health and comfort. And in some cases, a medication error or misunderstood procedure could potentially be fatal. Hospital staff who rely on the patient’s family or a bilingual employee to interpret risk key information being lost in interpretation, which can lead to a patient taking the wrong amount of medication, not taking necessary precautions during the recovery period, or even undergoing a procedure without fully understanding the risks involved.

Fortunately, many hospitals do employ professional translation. However, there unfortunately is not enough standardization in the requirements to be a certified medical interpreter. A 2012 study found thousands of interpretation errors that occurred over the course of the study in two large pediatric emergency departments—18% of which had potentially harmful effects. The same study found a decreased occurrence in mistakes by interpreters who had 100 hours or more of training. Training courses such as Bridging the Gap or other certified medical interpretation courses help medical interpreters improve their accuracy and professionalism. Using experienced, professionally trained medical interpreters reduces the risk of both interpretation error and misinformation being relayed to the patient.

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