Medical Interpretation, Medical Interpreter Services, Foreign Language Barriers and Informed Consent

Foreign language barriers, which are easily overcome with the help of competent medical interpreters, can cause various problems when they are ignored in a medical setting. According to medical malpractice theory, a physician may be held liable if his inability to adequately communicate with a patient prevents him from obtaining proper informed consent. This line of legal liability stretches from the Quintero v. Encarnacion case. In this case, the patient was only able to communicate using a few Spanish words.

Taken into custody, she was brought to a physician who determined she was mentally ill and in need of treatment. Thus, she was involuntarily committed for 12 years.

Eventually it was discovered that the patient was a Mexican citizen and member of the Tarahumara Indian tribe. In other words, she was not mentally ill. Needless to say, she filed suit against the physicians involved.

The court ruled that “informed consent cannot be obtained if the explanations were conducted in a language the patient did not understand”. The court further held that if “the patient’s capacity to understand is limited by a language barrier, and the physician proceeds without addressing this barrier…the physician may be liable for failing to obtain informed consent from the patient.”

Granted, this is a case in the extreme, but it demonstrates the point nonetheless. When it comes to ensuring proper informed consent is provided – and potential malpractice liability avoided – it is essential a qualified foreign language interpreter be used to facilitate communication between doctors and patients.

Quintero v. Encarnacion, Lexis 30228 (10th Cir. 2000).

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