Onsite Medical Interpreters for Health Care Facilities

Medical Interpreters Protect Doctors from Malpractice Claims

Both patients and healthcare providers depend on having ready access to foreign language interpretations and translations – including the use of onsite medical interpreting services. When such language services are not available, the risk to patient safety goes up – and along with it the risk of a medical malpractice claim.  Let’s look at the issue of medical malpractice and the availability of foreign language medical interpreters, starting from the seminal case on the topic.

In the Tran Case, the patient was a nine year old Vietnamese girl who died from a reaction she had to a drug administered by the physician. Although her parents primarily spoke Vietnamese, no foreign language interpreter was used. Instead, medical staff relied on both the patient and her 16 year old brother for interpretations.

Although the case ended in a settlement and thus no court precedent was issued, the case does make the case for liability when a medical professional fails to provide language access on such issues as:

The patient’s death was ultimately the result of a misdiagnoses by the emergency room. More so, the physician failed to advise the patient’s parents of the side effects and risk of using Reglan – which is not recommended for pediatric use.

Of interest here is the expert testimony of a certified foreign language interpreter that was included in the parent’s lawsuit. According to the expert witness, conducting the communications without a professional medical interpreter ‘failed to meet the standards of care applicable to the physician and the facility’. As a result of this failure, the patient did not receive the care they were entitled to.

The expert goes on to state ‘in my opinion, the failure of the doctor and the facility to provide a professional medical interpreter was a substantial factor in causing the patient’s death’.

The expert testimony also addresses the issue of using family members, friends and minor children as interpreters. “Upon arriving to the hospital, the need for the services of an interpreter should have been identified,” he says. “This could have been done by asking the parents if an interpreter was needed.” It is further stated that even if the parents had declined the service, the hospital should never allow a family member or minor to serve as the medical interpreter. This statement is backed by extensive research showing the importance of having a trained and professional interpreter and the negative effects of using what the expert terms as an ‘ad hoc’ foreign language interpreter.

More so, when the patient is a minor informed consent must come from the parents. Thus, they would need to understand the care of the child – which cannot be assumed when the minor patient is the one providing the interpretation (i.e., the minor cannot give consent).

Finally, in the arena of medical interpretation, extra care must be taken to have the nuances of the medical issues translated into the parents’ native language if they are to have an opportunity to make an informed decision. This is clearly not possible when using a minor as the minor is unlikely able to comprehend the medical terminology necessary for providing a proper translation to the parents – thus underlying the crucial aspect of using a certified foreign language interpreter experienced in the medical field.

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