Medical Translation and Interpreting: Saving Money, Saving Lives

Some professions can be very competitive and those who don't perform the same type of job duties may not understand why. Sometimes I think, "Why are these people being so competitive and cut-throat with their colleagues? It's not like they're saving lives!" However, in the field of medical translation and interpreting, we can say that yes, linguists often might be saving lives. Here are two examples of how medical translators and interpreters can save clients money while their work can save lives: The first example is found in an article posted in January 2009 in American Medical News from the American Medical Association. This case involved a New Jersey rheumatologist who refused to provide a sign language interpreter for a patient being treated for lupus. This patient consistently requested an interpreter, but claims that her requests were always denied. The physician's argument was that Medicare did not reimburse the entire cost of an interpreter for each visit. Instead, he passed written notes back and forth to the patient and her family.

Apparently, this was not enough for the patient to feel as though she understood what was happening at the medical visits and she transferred to another doctor. The patient sued the original physician, claiming violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, along with New Jersey's anti-discrimination law. The jury found the rheumatologist had indeed discriminated against the patient when failing to provide a sign language interpreter.

If a medical interpreter had been present at the child's visits with the rheumatologist, she might have felt differently about the care she received and would not have sued the physician, which will likely cost him more than an interpreter would have.

Then there is the story of Lia Lee, a child raised in California of Hmong refugees and the focus of Anne Fadiman's book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. Lia was misdiagnosed twice as having had pneumonia, when in reality, she was epileptic from the time she was an infant. Lia's parents did not speak English well enough to communicate with the doctors who treated her, and they often misunderstood how to care for her at home. They did not know how to describe the child's seizures effectively to her physicians, as in their own culture, these episodes seemed to convey that her body was being overtaken by a spirit.

Misunderstandings continued between Lia's parents and her physicians, as both sides were unable to communicate effectively and understand each other's cultures. A New York Times article reported, "The seizures worsened; by the time Lia was 4 ½, she had made more than 100 outpatient visits to medical facilities and been admitted to the hospital 17 times. When she was not quite 3, in frustration at what he viewed as her parents’ refusal to administer her medication, Dr. Ernst (Lia's physician) had Lia legally removed from the family home." Lia was sent to live in foster care for one year, yet another blow to her parents. Her health worsened and the relationships between her parents and her physicians were strained, as neither side seemed to adequately comprehend the culture and language of the other. Lia died on August 31, 2012.

A medical interpreter at Lia's visits and proper translation of her prescriptions and care instructions could have allowed Lia to receive consistent and proper care for her condition, likely avoiding her placement in foster care. Needless to say, such services would have greatly improved her quality of life.

These are only two of the stories about how medical translation and interpretation can save lives and reduce costs by avoiding unnecessary tests, misdiagnoses, treatment errors and miscommunication. To ensure compliance with federal regulations as a health care provider, be sure to request professional interpreting and translation for patients and their families. It truly can save you money and continue to save lives.