Pro translators help avoid medical errors

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Having professional translators in the emergency department isn't only good practice, but also could be an imperative to avoiding dangerous miscommunication with non-English-speaking patients.

Professional translators with official training, as opposed to family or friends acting as translators, helped limit errors, according to a study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. Researchers looked at two pediatric EDs in Massachusetts and found that when Spanish-speaking families had access to a professional interpreter, 12 percent of translation mistakes, such omitting or adding certain words, could have had a clinical consequence, Reuters reported. Without professionals there and "ad hoc" translators, translation errors with potential consequences occurred 22 percent of the time and 20 percent of the time when there were no interpreters at all.

In one example from the study, an "amateur interpreter" who was a family friend told the physician the child did not have drug allergies or take any medications, but the friend had not actually asked the mother, Reuters noted.

"The findings document that interpreter errors of potential clinical consequence are significantly more likely to occur when there is an 'ad hoc' or no interpreter, compared with a professional interpreter," lead researcher Dr. Glenn Flores, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, told Reuters in an email statement.

Although hospitals by law are required to provide some type of translation service to the estimated 25 million of Americans with limited English proficiency, patients don't always receive those services because of delays, physicians not requesting translators or shortages of workers for a particular area.

Interestingly enough, the number of hours or training rather than years of experience, affected the number of errors, the types of errors and the consequences, researchers found.

"These findings suggest that requiring at least 100 hours of training for interpreters might have a major impact on reducing interpreter errors and their consequences in healthcare, while improving quality and patient safety," study authors wrote.

To learn more:
- read the Reuters article
- see the study abstract

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