Medical professionals have made it clear: They need the help of medical interpreters in order to properly treat patients with limited English proficiency.
But why has that demand increased, and why can’t just any general interpreter — or even an online translation service — do the job?
Why the Increase in Demand?
The need for medical interpreters has increased proportionally to the rise in the non-English speakers in the US.
Spanish-speakers alone now number more than 50 million, and that number is expected to keep growing. Aside from Spanish, more than 10 million people in the US primarily speak Chinese, Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, Korean, German, Italian and Arabic, not to mention American Sign Language.
In addition, the Affordable Care Act has increased the number of people with medical coverage, leading to more people seeking medical care. But what happens when immigrants who speak another language encounter medical professionals who only speak English?
The answer is alarming enough to justify the need for more medical interpreters.
What Happens When Patients Don’t Have Interpreters?
Anyone in need of medical attention will benefit from clear communication with their doctor and other medical staff – that goes without saying.
Even just making an appointment and checking in can be stressful on the patient when there is a language barrier. When you don’t understand what the receptionist is saying, it can be hard to determine which day you want to come in for an appointment, or whether your insurance is accepted.
During the appointment itself, the patient must be able to accurately describe their symptoms and medical history to the doctor. This information can be crucial to a doctor’s ability to properly diagnose patients and then prescribe treatments. In one tragic misunderstanding, an elated expectant mother was prescribed and took abortion pills, thinking her doctor had given her prenatal vitamins.
Finally, even if the doctor is able to properly diagnose the illness, there’s no guarantee that the patient will understand their course of treatment. Again, a medical interpreter would be crucial in explaining treatment and any potential aftercare to the patient. Without proper understanding, there can be dangerous outcomes: An infamous example was a man who read his prescription bottle’s instructions of “Once daily” as the Spanish word once, which means 11. As a result, he took his blood pressure medication 11 times in one day.
Why Can’t Family Members Act as Medical Interpreters?
Many people try to get around the issue of not having a medical interpreter by having family members go to their appointments with them. But this doesn’t always work out.
The main reason is that most family members don’t have a medical background. They might speak two or more languages very well, but they probably don’t know how to interpret certain complex medical terms.
And even when they can, they might not want to. It can be hard to have the duty of telling a loved one that the doctor just confirmed a serious or fatal diagnosis.
It can be equally hard for patients to have family members present while they describe personal details that they might not want their siblings, children or parents to know. In these cases, having a neutral third party in the form of medical interpreters is the preferred route.
What’s more, when a doctor’s office always has professional medical interpreters on-hand, patients are no longer at the mercy of their family members’ schedule when they make appointments.
When patients can depend on help with medical interpreting – and medical translation, as well – they can rest assured that they will be met with someone who understands them, improving the odds that they’ll get the medical care they deserve.