Mistakes made by (medical) interpreters

A lot had been spoken about importance of having medical interpreter at hospital/doctor office to provide help for patients not fluent in doctor’s own language. This is of particular importance for countries like US, Germany, France and others with high volume of migration and medical tourism. For example, in US Hispanic population with many patients and their family members not fluent in English are usually underserved by medical professionals and hospitals because of language difficulties. They also tend to avoid going to a physician not to get into awkward situation. The number of bilingual medical practitioners is very low, that’s why the demand on medical interpreting is consistently high. However, in many cases this service is provided by underqualified interpreters or even social workers/family members, which leads to serious misinterpreting, often with clinical consequences. Despite of an active work and educational efforts from International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), many US hospitals still don’t have medical interpreters on board, or use services on non-certified interpreters. However, I had no idea about seriousness of this problem till I saw this study: Errors in Medical Interpretation and Their Potential Clinical Consequences in Pediatric Encounters by Glenn Flores et al., Pediatrics 2003;111:6 –14 (available here). In this study authors made audiotape recordings at pediatric visits with Spanish-speaking parents and English-speaking pediatricians facilitated by medical interpreters, either provided by hospital or amateur, and assessed number and type of interpreting mistakes, as well as clinical significance of these mistakes (more on Methods in study publication). Results were striking: the number of interpreting mistakes on average reached 31 (!) per visit, and there was no significant difference between hospital interpreters and amateur interpreters (like family member, nurse, social worker). Hospital interpreters had less clinically significant mistakes, but in total over half (!) of their errors had potential clinical consequences. Just a few examples on mistakes made by interpreters:

Or this one:

There is a well-known saying that a mistake in medical translation/interpreting could cost a life of a patient, but it’s the first time I see it myself.

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