ER translators can help to reduce medical errors, study says

Communication is key in many situations, but in an emergency, it can be the difference between medical efficiency and fatal medical errors.

A new study has revealed that having a translator in hospital emergency rooms can significantly decrease the number of medical errors resulting from a miscommunication or a simple lack of understanding. According to researchers, translators and interpreters may be especially important now since many patients in Illinois and throughout the entire U.S. have a limited knowledge of the English language or cannot speak the language at all.

The study followed 57 families who spoke Spanish as their primary language. All of the families sought medical attention at one of two different U.S. emergency rooms. Twenty-seven families were assisted by a non-professional interpreter, 20 were assisted by a professional interpreter, and 10 families were not assisted at all.

When using a non-professional interpreter, medical errors were 20 percent more likely to occur based on the type of information that was not translated correctly during the ER visit. When using a professional translator, the risk of a medical error being made as a result of a miscommunication was reduced to 12 percent.

The lead researcher of the study said the results help prove the fact that a professional interpreter in an emergency room can be beneficial in improving efficiency while also curbing medical mistakes due to a misunderstanding. Although the need for interpreters in emergency medical situations may seem obvious, not all patients have access to interpreters if they need one.

According to the findings, hospitals would benefit from establishing policies that would require a professional interpreter to be available to patients in emergency rooms. In addition, options such as having interpreters available through video or phone could also be explored to improve ER visits. Making sure interpreters have been trained on how to explain medical terms, procedures and other information between doctors and patients should also be considered. More training means an improved experience for patients in terms of safety and care quality.

Source: Reuters, “Interpreters in ER may limit medical errors: study,” April 17, 2012


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