Accurate Translation Required Under Obamacare

Posted on 05/28/2010
In Legal Translation



doctor health care translationIn 2010, Congress passed the health care bill colloquially known as Obamacare. The bill made some dramatic changes to health care in the US — but it may also shift a lot of focus to health care translation as well.

Obamacare specifically requires translation and interpreting services to be available to anyone who needs them. The government will be looking to make sure these health care translations are indeed available and accurate.

The bill also has specific requirements regarding the translation of health care plans.

Poor health care translations, such as those done by a computer program, are more than just an inconvenience. A poor health care translation puts a patient’s life on the line.

Studies on Poor Health Care Translation

In 2009, both New York City and the state of California passed laws that required pharmacies and some health care providers to provide translation and interpreting services to patients not proficient in English.

To see if this service was being provided in New York, a doctor and research assistant visited pharmacies in The Bronx, New York, where 44 percent of residents speak Spanish as their primary language.

Their findings, which they published in the medical journal “Pediatrics,” were shocking. Nearly 25 percent of the pharmacies they visited didn’t offer health care translations, despite the law that says they are absolutely necessary.

A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics claimed that two out of every three poor translations in health care have serious clinical consequences.

Machine Translation in Health Care

The root of many of these poor translations is a machine or computer translation program. Of the pharmacies that did provide health care translation, more than 80 percent used computer programs to translate the labels. Some pharmacies used bilingual staff members to provide prescription translations, and only about 3 percent used a professional translation and interpreting service.

Machine translations are prone to many errors. As part of the New York City study, 76 prescription label translations were generated using 13 different computer translation programs.

More than 50 percent of the prescription translations had serious errors. Thirty translations were incomplete, and six had spelling or grammatical errors.

Many were just confusing, resulting in labels with directions like these:

  • Apply to affected area twice to the indicated day like.
  • Take 1.2 aldia give dropperfuls with juice eleven to day.
  • Taking 0.6 mL 2 times to the day by little with juice.

Professional Health Care Translation & Interpreting

Human translators and interpreters are clearly more reliable than machines — but patients need access to them!

The New England Journal of Medicine recounted the story of a Spanish-speaking 18-year-old who told his girlfriend he felt “intoxicado” before he collapsed her floor. When she and her mother repeated the word to English-speaking doctors, they treated the patient for a drug overdose.

However, “intoxicado” does not mean “intoxicated” — it means “nauseated.” It wasn’t until a day and a half later that doctors realized he had not overdosed at all and instead had blood clots forming around his brain. The mistranslation resulted in quadriplegia. The patient received $71 million in a lawsuit.

The demand for accurate translation in health care is rising as the US government mandates that health care be available for residents — no matter what language they speak. Health care providers should align themselves with professional translation and interpreting services to avoid costly and potentially fatal mistakes.


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