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Hospitals Struggle to Provide Translators for Patients Who Don’t Speak English

According to a study published in March, such ad hoc interpreters make nearly twice as many potentially clinically significant interpreting errors as do trained interpreters.

The study, published online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, examined 57 interactions at two large pediatric emergency departments in Massachusetts. These encounters involved patients who spoke Spanish at home and had limited proficiency in English.

Researchers analyzed audiotapes of the visits, looking for five types of errors, including word omissions, additions and substitutions as well as editorial comments and instances of false fluency (making up a term, such as calling an ear an “ear-o” instead of an “oreja”).

They recorded 1,884 errors, of which 18 percent had potential clinical consequences.

For professionally trained interpreters with at least 100 hours of training, the proportion of errors with potential clinical significance was 2 percent. For professional interpreters with less training, the figure was 12 percent. Ad hoc interpreter errors were potentially clinically significant in nearly twice as many instances — 22 percent. The figure was actually slightly lower — 20 percent — for people with no interpreter at all.

A civil rights issue

It makes sense that trained interpreters, especially those with more experience, would make fewer errors, says Glenn Flores, a professor and director of the division of general pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, who was the study’s lead author. Experienced interpreters “know the medical terminology, ethics, and have experience in key situations where you need a knowledge base to draw on,” he says.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin. Courts have interpreted that to mean that all health-care providers that accept federal funds — because they serve Medicare and Medicaid recipients, for example — must take steps to ensure that their services are accessible to people who don’t speak English well, according to the National Health Law Program, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income and underserved people. (Doctors whose only federal payments are through Medicare Part B are exempt from this requirement, however.) The Census Bureau estimates that nearly 9 percent of the population age 5 or older has limited English proficiency, which the bureau defines as people who describe themselves as speaking English less than “very well.”

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