Do Language Barriers Contribute to Medical Errors?

The fact that English isn’t the only language spoken in New York – or America – shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, when at home, 21 percent of U.S. residents speak a language other than English. What’s more, 25 million of these same residents rate their own English skills as less than “very well.”

Imagine needing medical attention for you or your child, but not knowing how to properly communicate with a doctor. What are the chances the appropriate treatment will be given?Medical communication barriers

Language barriers exists, and it’s alarming to learn that millions of Americans are victims of hospital errors due to such barriers. Have you experienced a barrier like this in the past? Had you been offered the assistance of a medical interpreter?  A past study of malpractice claims conducted by the University of California, Berkeley found that in almost all cases reviewed, there was a need for a medical interpreter or some sort of language service.

Just how common are these errors? And, more importantly, what can be done to avoid them?

Communication Barriers Put Patients at Higher Risk for Medical Errors

The Huffington Post reported on one extreme example in which a language barrier resulted in a medical error: A Spanish-speaking patient had the wrong kidney removed. Not only does this case indicate an issue with communication and/or understanding, but that grave consequences that can later result.

As referenced in the UC Berkeley study, healthcare providers revealed the impact of language difficulties and inadequate funding of language services. Healthcare providers did not use adequate interpreters in over 90% of the claims reported.

Furthermore, in 12 of the claims – a little less than half – essential documents (i.e. consent forms, discharge instructions, other medical papers, etc.) were not properly translated. As a direct result, patients suffered severe damage (one person had a leg amputated), and even worse – death (two children and three adults died).

It’s clear that when a medical interpreter is not accessible for a patient who doesn’t speak English frequently, or speak the language well, confusion regarding his or her symptoms can take place. When this occurs, the patient is at a higher risk for:

  • A diagnosis delay
  • A misdiagnosis
  • An error in treatment

If you or a loved one has experienced a medical error due to a language barrier, it’s recommended you contact an attorney to assess your legal options.

How to Minimize Your Risk Due to Language Barriers

If a patient is unable to fully communicate to his or her doctor, and fluently share information regarding symptoms, ailments and medical history, the risk for misconception becomes higher, as does the chance that a medical error might occur.

In order to avoid language barriers (and potential mistakes), consider the following tips:

  • Ask the hospital (or doctor) if a medical interpreter is available
  • Before signing any documents, make sure you can read and understand all documents
  • Don’t use friends or family members as interpreters – professionals only
  • If you don’t understand a term or process, ask the doctor to clarify

There are a variety of ways in which a hospital can sufficiently provide medical interpreters or language services to patients whose first language isn’t English, such as:

  • Staff the hospital with full or part-time interpreters
  • Be aware of any staff members who are fluent in other languages
  • Consider hiring freelance interpreters, or having one on-call

Medical interpreters should not only be well-spoken in English, as well as other languages, but also have experience. Remember, hospitals are required to provide translation services to patients in need.

Contact a Medical Malpractice Attorney Today

If you or a loved one received improper medical treatment due to a language barrier, the attorneys at The Oshman Firm want to hear from you. From phone calls to medical records, we handle all aspects of your case. Let us be your advocates. Contact us today by calling (800) 400-8182 for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation.

Ted Oshman


Ted Oshman has been with The Oshman Firm since 1988 serving clients for over 25 years. Learn more about Ted's background and featured practice areas here.

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