Languages, Lives and Lessons

I recently encountered a couple interesting pieces of media and I wanted to share my experience. First, I watched an extremely candid TED speech by a doctor proclaiming an unspoken truth: doctors make mistakes. I was touched; to see his passion for the field; unforgettable and undoable moments in his life while trying to save those of others. A few weeks later, I came across a newspaper article about a recent study of interpreting in emergency rooms, and then a revelation.

Had any of the unfortunate scenarios the doctor combated been the result of a language barrier?

What is already a highly intense scenario – I had realized – is at least that much more complicated when the patient speaks a different language. Most of us may have only experienced furniture store interpreting about the leather recliner or the suede loveseat- but not the operating table!

As you can imagine, the study found a disconcerting likelihood of double the possibility for error if no interpreter or an amateur interpreter is present. Actually, a family member or bilingual member of the hospital was almost as useful as no interpreter at all. While this may seem a bit surprising, I have personally seen this reality as the subject of many court cases in the US; people don’t realize they put their emotions and own twist on words. Even though the person may just be trying to help, this is not classic interpreting.

Further, the study stated that professional translators can help limit miscommunications and therefore errors; they can actually improve care and cut costs that could be incurred by tests that are not necessary. In summary, effectively using professional translators means not only saving lives but also money, and that includes tax money, too.

Did you know hospitals in the US that receive funds from the government must provide interpreting services (whether in person or by phone or video)? It was – however – quite perplexing to read that although it is the law, there is no basis of training programs or hour requirement. The article also mentioned there were no certainties or conclusions to draw about the effectiveness of in-person versus phone or video interpreting in such settings. Perhaps it is time for an intervention?

This complex issue leads me to ask a whole other question: to myself. If I had read the study first, would I have different feelings? Or would my eventual viewing of the doctor’s speech have calmed my potential disgust? For if not for watching him first or even at all, could you be reading about “laziness and lack of due process by doctors and hospitals in the United States”? Whatever the lesson may be, there definitely is one here; and this one is open to your interpretation.