Medical translation and interpretation have no room for error. The consequences of poor translation can result in 483s, product recalls, litigation adversely effects for the end-users, even death. Here are some real-world examples that illuminate the actual cost of errors in medical translations.
One of the most often cited instances of incorrect medical interpretation is in the case of Cuban-American Willie Ramirez. The 18-year-old was already unconscious when his family brought him to the hospital due to suspected food poising. The family had limited English skills, telling the physicians on staff they believed Willie was “intoxicado” (poisoned). The hospital staff member incorrectly translated the word to mean “intoxicated” and consequently, the care team treated Willie for a drug overdose.
In reality, the teenager had experienced a cerebral hemorrhage. The delay in care and incorrect treatment damaged Willie’s system, leaving him a person with quadriplegia. Wrong interpretation of a single world dramatically altered the trajectory of Willie’s life, and he was ultimately awarded a $71 million malpractice settlement.
A translation error on British ex-pat Teresa Terry’s medical record incorrectly stated that the 49-year-old had a family history of breast cancer. After discovering a lump in her breast, her team of Spanish doctors acted preemptively to perform a double mastectomy, despite Teresa’s protests that she believed there was a mistake in her record.
After the surgery, it was revealed that the lump was benign, but the damage to Teresa’s body–and self-confidence–had already been done. Left with scars and trauma, Teresa sued the medical center for €600,000, citing negligence for the unnecessary removal of both breasts.
Overdose or death
Between 1989 and 2004, male patients in Epinal, France received overdoses of radiation to treat prostate cancer. The software for the radiation equipment included instruction booklets in English, which was not the team’s native language. Hospital staff attempted to translate instructions themselves instead of using a certified translator.
Upon discovering the error, the hospital suspended the radiotherapists involved, shuttered radiotherapy units, and replaced equipment. This was an easily avoidable medical translation error that resulted in overdosing hundreds of patients, surviving victims who continue to grapple with severe medical issues, and four deaths.
In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to Chinese drug manufacturer Guangdong Zhanjiang Jimin Pharmaceutical for improper active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) listing on an over-the-counter anti-itch product. The active ingredient was a different compound than listed on the declaration forms. The pharma manufacturer claimed the error was due to improper medical document translation, not deceptive practices. No matter the cause, the company was forced to recall the batches. The FDA added the company to the import alert list and recommended hiring a consultant to ensure adherence to regulations.
Medical translation errors are not limited to language mistakes solely within the hospital or clinical care settings. Translation inaccuracy in usage instructions, product inserts, product labels, software user interfaces, clinical data, and more can skew research results or result in incorrect usage of medical devices or pharmaceuticals. Working with an ISO-certified medical translation partner for medical document translation and certified interpreters with proven experience in the medical field provides a vital level of protection: for medical providers, manufacturers, and the patients who trust them.