Healthcare in the United States is dealing with a lack of qualified professional medical interpreters. The demand for medical interpreters has overcome the supply in the United States. According to the US Census Bureau, 25 million people living in the US are Limited English Proficient (LEP). The US Census Bureau data is from 2015, as of 2018, the number has increased.
In healthcare settings, there has been a tendency to use goodhearted, unqualified, bilinguals such as family, friends, or staff. Unfortunately, these good-hearted people are just not trained to act as medical interpreters. Regrettably, it is not fair and a hazardous situation for the patient, organization and the bilingual Samaritan. For these reasons and more listed below, it is of utmost importance that hospitals, doctor offices, mental health and social care use trained medical interpreters.
As mentioned above the need for medically trained interpreters in healthcare settings is crucial. In an article published by Harvard Medical School, recent studies “indicate that patients with limited English proficiency receive less preventive care, are less likely to adhere to medication regimens and are more likely to leave the hospital against medical advice.”
Unfortunately, healthcare settings are not adequately staffed to handle LEP patients. Healthcare providers need trained medical interpreters on staff 24/7 to fill the need of patients and families. Individual medical practices that see patients by appointment may utilize the services of Language Service Provider agencies or freelance interpreters.
It’s important to remember that a highly specialized trained interpreter will have a good understanding of not just languages, but also cultures. For example, patients might practice certain customs that are not standard practice in the United States such as diet restrictions, wardrobe traditions, and rituals. A highly trained and specialized interpreter can inform the medical team ahead of time, so the patients are not uncomfortable or offended.
Interpreters are also needed to assist patients and families with mental health issues. Mental health concepts in Western and non-Western cultures are vastly different. A trained mental health interpreter can help both the patient and medical staff feel comfortable and deal with any issue appropriately.
Interpreters in emergency rooms or appointments may encounter a patient dealing with depression, anxiety or PTSD. Training in these types of conditions is critical for effective communication to occur between doctor and patient.
The translation and interpretation need in social care settings is often an overlooked arena. Translators and Interpreters are necessary to build a bridge in working relationships across class, gender, immigration status, sexuality, language, and race. For reasons beyond my scope of knowledge, I’ve included a link to an article that goes into great depth the need for interpreters in social work situations.
Medical interpreting in pharmacies is another area of healthcare that hasn’t receive the most qualified resources. Often medical staff may make use of a patient’s English-speaking family members, use bilingual staff or worse yet “google-it.”
Untrained interpreters and translation tools in pharmacies can be dangerous. Even the smallest wrong prescription direction can be a matter of life and death to a patient.
A typical example is of the word “once.” In English, “once” means one time. However, in Spanish, “once” is the means 11! Oh my goodness, taking 11 doses of medication instead of one a considerable problem with dangerous and possibly fatal consequences.
Being able to interpret medical information would be a tremendous help in communicating with non-English speaking patients who may think they know the right dosage, but don’t. Interpreting would lessen the chance of a dosage error and reduce the pharmacy’s liability for any accidents.
All pharmacies should have access to trained medical interpreters for quality patient care and protection from legal ramifications.
Five reasons professional interpreting services are critical in healthcare
- Professionally trained medical interpreters are trained in medical terminology, cultural competence, the healthcare system, interpreter code of ethics, and national standard protocols
- Language barriers between doctors and patients may cause misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment
- Professionally trained medical interpreters understand their role and the delicate balance between patient, family and the medical team. Interpreters are trained to know when to be quiet and let the patient speak and when to speak up and advocate for the patient
- Costs of professional medical interpreters will be far less than lawsuits resulting from misdiagnosis, or mistreatment, or death.
- A language barrier can be the difference between life and death.
I hope this information is helpful to patients, families and healthcare teams in clarifying the need for more professionally trained interpreters in the United States.