The Importance of Language Services within the HealthCare Industry

By: Ashley Tulio, Communications Specialist

Medical language services refer to interpretation and translation for health issues or within the health system. Examples of such include appointments, a patient’s medical history in a different language, lab test results, and doctor-patient written correspondence. 

Medical Interpretation vs. Medical Translation

Medical Interpretation: the transfer of oral communication from one language to another. This enables real-time, cross-linguistic communication, which can be conducted face-to-face, in a conference setting, or over the phone.

Medical Translation: is rendering a written text, such as prescriptions and results, from a source language into a target language while preserving meaning.

When figuring out the issue at hand, proper healthcare relies on the communication between the patient and the medical professional. Communication is imperative to be able to understand the patient’s description of what they are experiencing to have a proper diagnosis, and an action plan for steps moving forward.

Poor communication can result in an incomplete or inaccurate history, misdiagnosis, and a treatment plan based on misinformation. In some cases, patients have to rely on family members to help communicate with medical professionals. However, there can be limitations such as scheduling conflicts between the family member, patient, and medical professional. A more complex situation can be explained by previous studies showing family members are less accurate and more reluctant to disclose all the information due to personal reasons that may include lessening the impact if prognosis would be too upsetting. Medical visits are already extremely sensitive and stressful for both patients and their family members, no matter what language is spoken.

A study that includes data from Toronto General and Toronto Westerns hospitals, led by Toronto physician and researcher Dr. Shail Rawal, said that patients with chronic disease and limited English are more likely to return to the emergency room or be readmitted to a hospital due to poorer understanding of discharge instructions and not taking medication as required, compared to those who are proficient in the language and were discharged with similar health concerns.

Access to professional interpreters is critical for the care of patients with limited English proficiency. The lack of access to interpretation within hospital patients in Canada could potentially result in unsafe health care through missed diagnoses, medical errors, and research finds.

The Impacts of the Pandemic

Medical interpretation for patients has also dramatically changed due to the pandemic. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the demand for remote medical language services has increased exponentially. The pandemic may have influenced medical facilities to see the importance of having immediate interpretation, leading to higher safety for patients. The pandemic allowed medical facilities to be aware of the proper medical language services access they had or lacked within their workplace.

Incorrect medical translation and interpretation can harm one’s health and well-being since it can lead to medical errors. An error may result from the failure of a planned action to be completed as intended, or the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim. Multiple cases across Canada that have been reported in the media where a language barrier results in misdiagnosis or a serious injury. Examples include wrongful surgeries, additional unnecessary treatment testing, and inaccurate prescriptions of medication, which both are associated with a risk of serious complications. Access to language services within the healthcare industry is crucial to providing proper medical services to patients.

References:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/patients-lacking-english-need-equal-access-to-interpreters-in-canada-study-1.5346763

https://www.reseausantene.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Impact-language-barrier-qualitysafety.pdf