In the November issue of Medical Care, they highlighted a recent cross-sectional study on clinical mistakes due to inaccurate language interpretation. The study found that errors in interpretation are more common when untrained interpreters are used, and that they are far rarer when professional medical interpretation services are employed. The study analyzed the interpreted transcriptions from a large number of recorded interactions comparing professional interpreters with “improvised” interpreters like friends, family and medical personnel without formal language training.
The study found that the most common type of error in interpretation are preemptive answers and omissions. 30% of the text units included wrong interpretation, a massive number especially when considering the nuance of medical diagnosis. Of the improvised, non-professional interpreters (friend, family, or nurse) 54% included inaccurate interpretation, whereas mistakes were found in just 23-25% of professional interpretations. This indicates that inaccurate interpretation occurs twice as frequently with improvised interpreters when compared to professional translators.
The analysts believed that 7% of these interpretation errors were “highly significant.” One example of a highly significant error is an interpreter telling a patient to take medicine every 6 hours as opposed to every 8 hours. Nearly 5% of the errors when using an improvised interpreter were of high significance as compared to around 1.5% with professional interpretation services.
What can we take from these findings? It is obviously better to use a professional interpreter rather than a nurse, friend or family member since it means that you will far more accurately understand the information you are getting from your physician and dramatically lower the likelihood of significant mistakes. Additionally, having a professional translator can actually reduce hospital costs. According to Harvey Castro, an emergency physician at Quest Care Partners, “When a non-English-speaking patient comes in and you can’t understand what their chief complaint is, you are assuming the worst and tend to order more things, so your cost goes up. It makes sense to deter that cost and have services available.”
Accurate interpretation services are a critical component to effective care for healthcare companies, especially those that deal directly with patients. Investing in a strong and sustainable process for regularly obtaining professional medical interpretation services can help medical and healthcare companies reduce costs and improve patient care creating a critical win/win for everyone.