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Importance of accurate translation in healthcare settings

In the second part of our focus on the importance of accurate translations in healthcare settings, we explore the role of direct communication with patients and keeping them as comfortable as possible. Visiting a doctor or hospital can be an uneasy experience even for those who do speak the native language. For individuals that cannot properly communicate with their doctors, the visit can be downright terrifying and leave them upset, confused, and possibly worse off for wear.

One unfortunate example of this is of 18-year-old Willie Ramirez, who was admitted to a hospital in Florida back in 1980 in a coma. NPR covered his story, in which his family referred to him as “intoxicado”, which in Spanish just implies that he ingested something, whether it be food, drugs, or anything else. What was interpreted by the doctor was that Willie was “intoxicated” in the sense of a drug overdose.

Willie laid in the hospital bed for two days being treated for an imaginary overdose before doctors realized that the real problem was bleeding in his brain. By then, it was too late and when he woke from his coma, all his limbs had been amputated.

In many cases, families and friends of patients are used as ad hoc interpreters, which can lead to a plethora of issues. The NPR article quotes Helen Eby, a certified medical interpreter, “You know, you’ve got a 10-year-old in a gynecology appointment,” she says. “Is this where you would normally take a 10-year-old? Not likely. Or [you’ll] have a child — an adult child even — interpret a parent’s cancer diagnosis. That’s got to be highly traumatic.”

Health Affairs covered another case of healthcare translations gone wrong – a toddler suffering from a broken collar bone was mistakenly placed in child protective custody for suspected abuse. Without an interpreter available, a medical resident with some basic Spanish knowledge misunderstood “se pegó” to mean the girl was “hit by someone else” instead of the girl “hit herself” during a bike accident. Both translations for “se pegó” – “she hit herself” and “she was hit” are correct, meaning this situation would have required a professional interpreter with years of experience in the nuances of the Spanish language to translate within context.

Although in-person interpretation isn’t always required or available, the costs of hiring professional interpreters are almost always guaranteed to be less than those of lawsuits resulting from misdiagnosis or mistreatment. Some hospitals and doctors leverage interpretation services via phone, however these interpreters are often not certified and have limited understanding of medical terminology.

NPR spoke with an internist at Tuality Healthcare, Dr. Angela Alday, who says that up to 20 percent of her patients require an interpreter.

“One problem that I run into with the translator phone is a lot of our elderly patients seem to be kind of confused by it. You know, some of them don’t hear very well, so that can be a problem with the phone translator. And then, particularly if the patient has dementia, sometimes using the telephone translator is confusing. They don’t know what’s going on.”

A patient at Tuality Hospital, Isidro Hernandes, echoed Alday’s sentiments.

“A lot of times the over-the-phone interpreter can’t see what you’re doing, can’t describe or relay that message, and sometimes they might have errors or mistakes in communications.”

One of the most tragic and frustrating types of issues is the one that can be avoided. Proper interpretation is key just about anywhere but plays a significant role in the well-being of peoples’ lives when it comes to healthcare. Is there really a price that can be applied to that?

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