Hospitals naturally encounter patients who speak a cornucopia of different languages-far too many for them to have an interpreter on staff for each one. However, language barriers make it extremely difficult to treat patients, preventing doctors from accurately understanding the patient’s symptoms and preventing the patient from fully understanding their condition and treatments.
So, some US hospitals have turned to medical interpreter hotlines to help medical personnel communicate with patients who don’t speak English. Medical interpreter lines and video interpreting services not only make the staff’s job easier, patient outcomes improve as a result.
For example, the Houston Chronicle describes the story of one elderly Korean man with an aggressive form of cancer who had a reputation for being a “bad,” uncooperative patient. When the team at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, New Jersey used a medical interpreting service to talk to him, they soon figured out that he wasn’t cooperative because he had no idea what was wrong with him. Once his condition was explained, the staff easily persuaded him to agree to treatment.
Unfortunately, cost constraints keep many hospitals from offering similar services. The Chronicle notes that Parkland Memorial Hospital in Houston spends $160,000 per month on medical interpreting services. While hospitals receiving federal funding must provide access to interpreters for patients who don’t speak English, only 13 states offer funding to reimburse the cost of translation services for patients.
Unfortunately, medical mistakes caused by language barriers can be expensive, too-costing the hospital money due to litigation, costing patients and insurance companies for additional treatment and even more important, costing patient lives.
For example, the Houston Chronicle notes that in 1980, a Spanish-speaking ER patient became paralyzed for life when one of his relatives stated he had been “intoxicado” before he collapsed. Since “intoxicado” is a cognate for the English “intoxicated”, the ER team assumed that mean he had overdosed on drugs, but in Spanish it can simply mean “nauseous.” He actually had a brain injury. The resulting lawsuit cost the hospital $70 million.