Not everyone in the US speaks English fluently, yet all permanent residents (and sometimes even temporary visitors) need medical assistance at some point.
When that time comes, they will need the ability to effectively communicate with doctors, which is why having a medical interpreter available is essential.
Otherwise there can be serious consequences, and not just for patients.
Lack of Proper Medical Care
Whether patients are semi-fluent in English or cannot speak the language at all, they need a medical interpreter to overcome language barriers and receive proper care. More specifically, they need to be able to clearly communicate their symptoms, family history of medical problems, and any allergies.
Without the use of a medical interpreter, many patients simply do not receive the care they need. Even if they can speak enough English to talk to the doctor, their comprehension of the language might be limited.
This could result in a patient’s misunderstanding of their diagnosis and all of their options when it comes to medical care. Their limited understanding may mean they do not realize what their next steps should be, such as getting additional tests, or taking the proper dosage of prescribed medications.
In 2013, the Huffington Post reported that a Spanish-speaking woman in California had a devastating miscommunication with her doctor: The doctor informed his patient that she was three months pregnant, and she was thrilled. However, the patient had a limited understanding of English, her doctor did not speak Spanish, and no interpreter was provided.
After misunderstanding her doctor’s question about wishing to keep the baby, the patient believed she had been given a prescription for prenatal care; unfortunately, she had instead taken medication to induce an abortion.
Wasting Time and Money
Medical interpreters can also mitigate less-tragic issues. For example, some patients who do not have access to a medical interpreter might not be able to communicate symptoms clearly. This can lead to errors in the diagnosis, causing the doctor to order expensive, unnecessary tests.
Both patients and insurance providers end up paying for this kind of mistake, which is why the use of medical interpreters can reduce healthcare costs. In addition, patients might simply waste their time going to additional doctor’s appointments and completing needless lab tests.
General Interpreters and Family Members Miss the Mark
Some medical practices believe they can simply use a general interpreter to help doctors communicate with patients. However, this rarely works out well, since few interpreters have the medical knowledge necessary to accurately convey diagnoses, treatment options and prevention tips.
By contrast, a professional medical interpreter has the training required to make sure patients understand what’s going on at each appointment. They know the most updated medical terminology, and they also know the importance of interpreting word for word rather than summarizing or offering their own opinion to the patient.
The medical practices that do not use interpreters at all might be tempted to rely on family members to interpret. However, this is risky because there is no telling exactly how much English the relatives of patients actually understand. They might be misinterpreting just as much as the patient would. Or, if they are fluent in English, they might not be fluent enough in their relative’s native language to properly convey medical terminology.
Even when family members are multilingual, they sometimes find it hard to be impartial while conveying medical information. For example, if the diagnosis is serious, relatives acting as interpreters might not want to worry the patient by being upfront with him or her. The result is that the doctor cannot trust that the patient is aware of the condition or the required treatment.
Clearly, the consequences of not using a medical interpreter can be serious. This decision can lead to confusion for patients, wasted time and money, or most significantly, improper medical care.