Medical Translation Gone Wrong: 4 Devastating Examples

“First do no harm” is a difficult promise to keep when language barriers interfere with communication between doctors and patients.  Medical translation and interpreting can break down those barriers, but quality is of the utmost importance when lives hang in the balance. These four examples of medical translation gone wrong show why it’s important to use highly skilled and specially trained medical translators and interpreters.

Willie Ramirez and the $71 Million Dollar Word

Willie Ramirez was only 18 and out with friends when he suddenly developed a splitting headache. By the time he got to his girlfriend’s house, he was barely conscious.  He was rushed to the hospital, but when he woke up he was paralyzed. He will never walk again.  A brain bleed left him a quadriplegic for life.

But it didn’t have to be that way. The haemorrhage should have been treatable, but the Ramirez family did not have access to a Spanish interpreter. So, when they told the emergency room doctors that they believed Willie was “intoxicado,” he was treated for a drug overdose. As Health Affairs explains, “intoxicado” is not the same as “intoxicated:”

Among Cubans, “intoxicado” is kind of an all encompassing word that means there’s something wrong with you because of something you ate or drank. I ate something and now I have hives or an allergic reaction to the food or I’m nauseous.

The haemorrhage was only discovered after days of improper treatment, and by then it was too late. The hospital, which should have provided a professional interpreter, is liable for a settlement of approximately $71 million dollars to pay for Willie’s care for the rest of his life. 

Teresa Tarry- an Unnecessary Double Mastectomy

British mother Teresa Tarry lost her breasts to an unneeded double mastectomy in Spain eight years ago, after a translation error led her doctors to believe she had a family history of breast cancer.  According to the Daily Mail,

She claims doctors believed that both Teresa’s mother and sister had suffered from breast cancer after a translation error ended up on her medical records. Then she struggled in speaking to the doctors.

In reality, she has no family history of cancer, so it was unnecessary to remove her breasts.

The worst part? The lump she originally sought help for wasn’t even cancerous! After losing her job and living what she describes as “an eight year living hell,” she is now suing the hospital for €600,000 in compensation.

The Case of the Botched Knee Replacement Surgeries

Medical translation errors don’t have to be fatal to have serious consequences. For example, in Germany in 2006-2007, a translation error resulted in 47 failed knee replacement surgeries.  The Journal of Specialised Translation describes the case:

“Two different types of that knee prosthesis are available — for use with or without cement. The source language label on the package of the prosthesis included the information that the femoral component was “non-modular cemented,” which was incorrectly translated as “non-cemented” or “without cement.”

Knee replacement surgery is a painful procedure that takes months to recover from. Over the course of a year, 47 people had to undergo that ordeal twice for no reason.

The Tran Case

When it comes to medical interpreting and translation,  the case of the Tran family is an especially tragic cautionary tale. In this case, the patient, a girl of only nine years, was asked to interpret for herself until she collapsed as a result of a reaction to one of her prescriptions.  At that point, her 16-year-old brother took over and attempted to translate for his Vietnamese-speaking parents. Unfortunately, by the time the doctors figured out what was going on, she was already dead and it was too late.

Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to have family members interpreting for patients, much less to rely on a child in distress to translate the information her parents need to make decisions about her care.

Additionally, when the girl was originally discharged from the hospital after being dosed with the drug that would kill her, none of the discharge instructions were translated into Vietnamese.

The girl’s family sued and was awarded damages to the tune of $200,000. As an expert witness at the trial stated:

“Conducting the communications without a professional medical interpreter failed to meet the standards of care applicable for the physician and the facility. The effect is [that] she did not receive the care she should have. The parents were not able to adequately understand and address her medical needs. In my opinion, the failure of the doctor and the facility to provide a professional medical interpreter was a substantial factor in causing [patient]’s death.”

The bottom line? Professional medical translation and interpreting services save lives and improve quality of care. Controlling healthcare costs is on everyone’s minds these days, but translation and interpreting are not places to cut corners.

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2 replies
  1. Paul Rand
    Paul Rand says:

    This article highlights the importance of using a professional translation service in the medical sector….using anyone that happens to know the language is the same as letting someone operate on you who happens to have the board-game operation!


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