Study: Professionals interpreters may prevent medical malpractice

Posted on behalf of Stewart Bell, PLLC on May 16, 2012 in Medical Malpractice

Generally speaking, hospital emergency rooms are fast-paced, highly stressful environments. They also tend to have fewer staff than is needed to deal with the wide range of issues ERs are confronted with on a daily basis or the high demand for emergency medical services. Given these facts, it is not surprising that ERs are one of the most frequent sources of medical malpractice claims in West Virginia and nationwide.

According to a new study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, medical malpractice is about half as likely to occur in an emergency room setting when professionally trained interpreters (as opposed to family members, friends, volunteer, etc.) are able to assist doctors, nurses and other ER staff members in communicating with patients.

While this is not the first study to conclude that language interpreters are beneficial to patients and health care providers alike, it is the first to evaluate the effectiveness of professionals who have been trained in medical interpretation versus that of untrained native language speakers, amateur volunteers and others.

As to the particulars of the study itself, researchers from of the University of Texas looked at the cases of 57, primarily Spanish-speaking families that sought emergency medical treatment at two different pediatric emergency rooms in Massachusetts. Ten of the cases researchers looked at involved no language translation assistance. Twenty-seven involved non-professional interpreters, and the remaining 20 cases involved the use of professionally trained interpreters.

Overall, researchers found that trained interpreters were about half as likely to make a translation error that could have serious health consequences for a child than family members, friends or bilingual hospital staff members with no interpretation training.

Although the limited focus of this study did not allow researchers to draw any conclusions about whether it's better to have an interpreter physically present (as opposed to someone on a video screen or a phone) or how much training medical interpreter programs should provide, lead researcher Glenn Flores noted that interpreters who had at least 100 hours of training had only a two percent error rate for potentially adverse health consequences and medical malpractice claims .

Source: Reuters, "Interpreters in ER may limit medical errors : study," Amy Norton, April 17, 2012

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