A third of hospitals don't have mandatory translators

A new Health Affairs study finds that 1 in 3 hospitals in the U.S. lack the translators required by federal law, a deficiency that can have serious adverse effects on patient safety.

“People have a right to hear a cancer diagnosis in a language they understand, not through hand gestures,” lead author Melody Schiaffino, who works for the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University, told Reuters. 

Schiaffino's team analyzed census data from 2009 to 2013 to calculate the demand for translation services by region, after which they looked at 4,514 hospitals’ ability to meet that demand. In areas where demographics create high or moderate need for language services, hospitals are better-equipped, but not by much--only a quarter of hospitals in such areas have interpreters.

The holes in coverage are particularly notable in certain regions, such as the greater Nashville area and the area around Lexington, Nebraska. Other areas such as the New York-New Jersey region had more interpreter services, but the coverage was inconsistent across the area. The research was led by Melody Schiaffino of the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University,

The full extent of the problem can be difficult to gauge, because even some of the hospitals that reported no interpreters may offer translation services elsewhere in the hospital or have bilingual employees whose official job description doesn’t involve interpretation services, Alicia Fernandez, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, who wasn’t involved in the research, told Reuters.

“We can’t tell the extent of the problem,” she said. “You can imagine how difficult it is to get a cancer diagnosis when you’re not really understanding. When family members act as interpreters, they make many mistakes and they carry the anxiety of making a mistake.”

- read the study abstract
- here’s the article