First, Do No Harm: How Language Plays an Essential and Life-Saving Role in Health Care

By: Jack Xu


By Sanah Matadar, Social Media Coordinator

I’m going to mention something and I guarantee I correctly guess what comes to your mind. Ready?

Okay, here it goes: Health.

You’re thinking of Doctors in some way or form, right? Perhaps you’re remembering that six-month check-up you have to schedule, or thinking back to when one of your loved ones was in the hospital, and the doctors were explaining what was happening; their reports might as well have been background noise as you didn’t take in a single word they said.

The point being, health is typically associated with health care and health care professionals: the doctors, the nurses, and the wider health care team that consists of physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and more. When was the last time the mention of health had you immediately picturing a language professional?

Despite the availability heuristic telling you otherwise, language professionals do hold a critical position in patient health and care. Consider the thousands of refugees to Canada in recent years, and the equally great number of immigrants who might not speak a local language, but who without a doubt interact with the country’s health care system.  Additionally, this situation is not unique to Canada and new Canadians. Everyday, people travel to foreign countries, unable to speak the native language; what happens if there’s an accident or a medical emergency? Ideally, a qualified interpreter is available, and things proceed as if you’re at your local health centre.

Still not convinced at the critical role language professionals play in health care settings? The following two cautionary tales might help.

Patient, Minor, Interpreter?

The lack of a professional interpreter played a big role in the tragic death of the Tran family’s 9-year-old girl. Mr. and Mrs. Tran took their ill daughter to the hospital; it would later be discovered she had an infection. The couple, originally from Vietnam, spoke very little English, and so their son and daughter, the patient in this situation, acted as interpreters. The doctor misdiagnosed her condition and prescribed medication which led to a fatal heart attack. The parents were not informed of any side effects of this medication, which was not meant for pediatric use.

As part of a malpractice case filed by the Tran family against the hospital, an expert witness testified saying, “[T]he failure of the doctor and the facility to provide a professional medical interpreter was a substantial factor in causing [patient]’s death.” Indeed, this event exemplified problematic and unethical behaviour in various instances, from having the patient in discomfort act as an interpreter, the patient being a minor, and the failure of the physician to provide the family with a translated consent form. Furthermore, some might argue that family members of patients should be used as interpreters sparingly, with trained and qualified interpreters leading to better outcomes.

Everyone makes mistakes, but some are a lot more damning…

In 2007, surgeons in a Berlin hospital completed 47 faulty knee-joint replacement surgeries. The procedures were completed following a faulty translation. The English label instructed physicians to use non-modular cement, but the replacements were done without any use of cement.

How could such a mistake be made? The term ‘non-modular’ was mistakenly translated to the German word for ‘non-cemented,’ and so surgeons believed that the type of knee prosthesis being used did not require cement. Of course, accurate translations aren’t in a surgeon’s job description, but this case further highlights the influence and life-saving power of professional language services connected to health care.

If medical and health care professionals are committed to providing the best care for their patients, making patients comfortable, and ensuring positive outcomes for patients, then there needs to be room for language professionals in health care areas. Interpreters and translators, just like pharmaceuticals, evidence-based research, and time, can make the difference between life or death.

The World Health Organization recognizes April 7 as World Health Day, acknowledging their inception date as well as raising awareness on one major issue in global health each year. This year, they’ve chosen to focus on Universal Health Coverage, with the hope of anyone and everyone being able to access health care, at any time or place.

Part of this principle of accessibility is to receive health care in your chosen language; language should pose zero barriers to receiving the critical information surrounding your health. MCIS is proud to offer Advanced Medical Interpreter Terminology Training (AMITT) – an online asynchronous course you may complete at your own pace, working towards our mission to improve access to critical information through language solutions.

For more information on the AMITT training course, please visit:

To learn more on the Tran case, please visit:

To learn more on the German knee surgery case, please visit: