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Preventing communication errors through trained interpreters

In the last blog post, we discussed communication errors that can lead to medical malpractice. One cause of communication errors is language barriers. If patients are unable to communicate their symptoms or health histories to their doctors, there is certainly an increased risk of error.

That is why a study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine recommends that emergency rooms hire professional translators. According to the study, serious emergency room errors were two times more likely when interpreters were not present or the interpreters were family members or other amateurs.

How big is the problem? Nearly 25 million residents in the U.S. are not very proficient in English. And since somewhere between 18 percent and a quarter of individuals visit the emergency room each year, millions of people who do not speak English fluently come to the ER.

According to the study and other similar studies, having a professional translator available can reduce costs by preventing unnecessary tests. It would also undoubtedly improve patient safety and reduce the potential for medical malpractice. Furthermore, this was the first study to show the large difference between amateur interpreters and trained interpreters. The study found that trained interpreters made potentially risky errors 12 percent of the time, while untrained interpreters made risky errors 22 percent of the time. In healthcare, that is a significant difference.

We have well-trained interpreters in the courtroom - interpreters capable of understanding difficult legal concepts. Why should healthcare be any different, especially when lives are at stake? Hospitals need interpreters capable of understanding medical jargon and who are trained to ask the right questions. Without them, hospitals are opening their doors to potential medical malpractice claims caused by communication errors.

Source: Msnbc.com, "Interpreters in ER may limit medical errors: study," Reuters, Apr. 17, 2012

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