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More than 25 million residents of the United States may suffer because they have inadequate translation at medical appointments. This can cause problems, both large in small. On the small end, when care providers cannot clearly understand patient needs, they order unnecessary tests. That creates more expense than is needed to solve medical problems as well.

Problems that are more serious occur when patients are unable to give medical histories, or describe well enough in English the nature of the malady. They also may not clearly understand their physician’s questions. When that happens they can get prescriptions to which they have allergies, or prescriptions that cause complications with other conditions or other medication they already take. In the worst cases, they could end up hospitalized or dead because the doctor treated the wrong problem or the lack of understanding caused a surgical error such as an amputation of the wrong leg.

It is the physician’s responsibility to make certain that the patient clearly understands the nature of a problem before treating it, yet many patients report insufficient translation for doctor’s visits. If this happens at a hospital, it is more than a matter of ethical responsibility. Federal law requires that hospital receiving funds from the U.S. government have appropriate qualified interpreters for the area they serve.

Smaller clinics and private practices that try to provide such services may face another problem. It can be difficult to tell how qualified an interpreter is. Merely studying Spanish, for example, may not be enough. In the United States, that particular language has speakers representing dozens of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Different places have regional differences in both pronunciation and colloquialisms. These could conceivably alter the details of what an interpreter understands from what the speaker intends. In addition, medicine itself has a language of its own. Medical interpreters need to know the language and the specialized medical terms to clearly serve a patient’s best interests.

Source: Chicago Tribune, “Interpreters in ER may limit medical errors: study,” April 17, 2012