Medical interpreting is never something that should be left to unqualified interpreters.
In the interest of high-quality patient care, and the safety and comfort of both medical staff and patients, professional interpreting services should always be used in the health care field.
A 2011 study on the relationship between language barriers and medical malpractice (pdf) highlights the necessity of professional medical interpreting with some shocking case studies.
Need for Accuracy in Medical Interpreting
Professional medical interpreters have the knowledge of medical terminology and languages needed for fast, effective and accurate interpreting between patients and physicians. Incorrect interpreting in the medical field can have particularly dire consequences, even putting a patient’s life at risk if, for example, the patient is unable to effectively communicate an allergy or symptom. Simply having an “okay” or “good enough” understanding might work in informal, non-professional settings, but in a medical context, this just won’t do.
In more than one case described in the study, conflicting records show that health care workers were not even certain what language the patient spoke. The probability of incorrect interpreting is obviously much higher if you don’t know what language you’re hearing! A professional agency, on the other hand, would be able to identify the language in question and provide an interpreter with the linguistic knowledge needed.
Importance of Using Unbiased Professional Interpreters
Another dangerous approach to medical interpreting is using family members as interpreters. Several cases report the use of a child, sibling or parent as an interpreter, since he or she could speak the languages of the patient and the doctor — but this approach can backfire drastically.
First, a bilingual family member is unlikely to be conversant in the medical terminology needed to properly interpret a patient history or diagnosis. Second, family members can’t be impartial. They may lie or omit information in order to avoid dealing with painful circumstances or to protect their loved ones from difficult truths.
The use of family members who are children for medical interpreting, as occurred in several cases highlighted in the study, is particularly risky. In some cases, the children who were acting as interpreters were also the patients! A child receiving medical treatment is already likely to be scared and overwhelmed. Adding the burden of asking that child to act as a medical interpreter is simply going to make the situation worse for the patient.
Consequences of Unqualified Medical Interpreting
When you need to overcome linguistic barriers in the health care field, professional medical interpreting is always a must — period. Patient care suffers when communication is hindered, an issue that affects both the patient and their doctor.
In a 2015 New York Times article, this truth is brought home. The article, which focuses on the need to improve doctor-patient communication, demonstrates how miscommunication and misunderstanding are the lead causes for malpractice suits.
Clearly, poor communication, especially in terms of incorrect interpreting, can lead to unnecessary medical mistakes and expenses and, in some instances, have serious repercussions.
Health care workers, both doctors and administrators, should not have to waste precious time struggling to communicate with patients. In medicine, every second counts. Professional medical interpreting benefits everyone involved, and can save serious time, hassle — and even lives.