May 13, 2021

Volume XI, Number 133


May 12, 2021

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

May 11, 2021

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

May 10, 2021

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

Lost in Translation. Language Barriers Pose Hurdle to Doctor & Patients

When lives are at stake, doctors cannot afford to be given a poor translation when attempting to understand what is going on with his or her patient and family members cannot misinterpret the instructions given to them. The quality of a patient’s life and his or her prognosis can be greatly diminished simply because there was a language barrier and this is why there needs to be a greater investment in interpreters by hospitals. Rather than hire these individuals, many healthcare providers have opted for less expensive and impersonal options that have proven to be highly ineffective and jeopardized the health of many.

Minor Misinterpretations Can Result in Major Medical Errors

One stark example of the devastation that can result from poor translation in a hospital setting comes from a baseball play who was severely injured when a medical interpreter mistranslated a single word used by his family to describe his condition. In the Spanish language, “intoxicado” means digestive irritation, but it was translated to mean “intoxicated” by the interpreter working with Willie Ramirez in 1980.

The message was relayed to the doctor that he was suffering from a drug overdose and the doctor did not notice the hemorrhaging in Ramirez’s brain until it was too late to prevent massive trauma which rendered him paralyzed from the neck down. As more hospitals seek less expensive alternatives to hiring in house translators, the problem is getting worse.

Use of Phone Service makes it Even More Difficult to Break Language Barriers

Despite the requirement that hospitals hire professional translators, some have moved to depend on phone services that allow doctors and nurses to gain access to a translator where needed. The problem is that these translators are not able to see what is happening at the moment, some patients with hearing problems are unable to understand the person on the other end and it is difficult for patients or translators to relay messages without being there.

There is also a severe shortage of qualified interpreters, which is a reason hospitals are turning to phone services for their needs. A study revealed that in the state of Oregon, only 100 out of 3,500 interpreters had the right qualifications to work with patients in healthcare settings. The error rate for an unqualified interpreter can be up to 22% compared with 2% for interpreters with more than 100 hours of training.

There is only a 3% chance that Oregonians will receive a qualified interpreter, however.

Family Members Often Make Translation Errors Themselves

There are many instances where an English speaking relative of the patient may attempt to translate a doctor’s instructions or communicate the needs of the patient. Many of these translators are young children, however, and may not understand the instructions fully themselves to begin with. The only solution is to rely on the skills of a well-trained interpreter who can communicate with patients face to face.

Copyright © 2021, Rosenfeld Injury LawyersNational Law Review, Volume VII, Number 93



About this Author

Jonathan Rosenfeld, Personal Injury Lawyer, Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers

I’m an Illinois lawyer with a nationwide practice who represents members of our society who have been seriously injured or killed due to the irresponsible acts of an individual or company. The injured have the same rights as everyone else — to be treated with compassion and respect— but their vulnerability means they need special protection and representation against those who injure, neglect or abuse them. This is my life’s work.

I recognize that an injured person has one opportunity to get the compensation that the law allows. I am fully dedicated and mindful of this...