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5 min read

Bridging the Language Gap: Medical Translation Services for Effective Healthcare Communication

medical transcription

As of 2022, of the reported 333 million people living in the US nearly 45 million people were born outside the country and around 67.7 million – just under 20% – speak a language other than English inside the home; in California, that number rises to a whopping 43.9% of residents. The importance of accurate translation of medical information cannot be overstated – it’s actually a matter of life and death. There exist countless examples of medical malpractice resulting from mistranslation and interpretation, not just in the US but globally. For example:

  • A British citizen living in Spain, Teresa Tarry’s medical records were incorrectly translated, stating she had a family history of breast cancer. As a result, she underwent what was ultimately an unnecessary double mastectomy.

  • Radiologists in Epinal, France prescribed overdoses of radiation to treat prostate cancer, simply by mistranslating the English language instruction booklets for radiation equipment. Hundreds were left with long-term ill effects and at least four deaths were reported.

  • In the case of Robert Lee Hernandez v. United States of America, ineffectual (non-translated) follow-up instructions caused the plaintiff to lose his right leg.

High-quality medical translation services can bridge the language gap, ensuring effective communication between healthcare providers and non- or limited English proficient (LEP) speakers. The legal ramifications of providing insufficient or inferior spoken interpreting and written translation services are obvious, but it’s the devastating effects it can have on peoples’ lives that makes quality medical translation truly important.

medical transcription

First Do No Harm: Understanding the Importance of Language Access in Healthcare

Effective communication within healthcare settings is critical to quality care and patient safety – it’s also essential to inspiring trust in healthcare providers and the healthcare system. When patients feel understood and respected, they are more likely to trust their healthcare providers and adhere to treatment plans, leading to better health outcomes.

Without proper language access – both written and oral – important medical information can be easily misunderstood or miscommunicated, leading to misdiagnoses or inadequate care. Language barriers prevent patients from fully understanding their medical conditions, treatment plans, and medication and post-procedural instructions. The inability to make informed decisions about one’s lifestyle and healthcare compounds the negative effects over time, generating increasingly suboptimal outcomes.

Language access is not only important for patient-provider communication but also for ensuring accurate medical documentation and records. Medical professionals need to accurately understand and document patients’ medical histories, symptoms, and treatment responses, regardless of their language proficiency.

By recognizing the importance of language access in healthcare, medical facilities can take proactive steps to overcome language barriers and provide equitable care to all patients, regardless of their linguistic background.

Communication Challenges in Multilingual Healthcare Settings

Healthcare-related settings pose unique challenges when it comes to communication – patient responses are often subjective, families will often be involved, and cultural and religious practices can all affect the doctor-client relationship. Add to the mix a patient who is deaf- or hard of hearing or has non- or limited English proficiency and it’s no wonder that information is so easily lost in translation.

The prevalence of family involvement within the healthcare setting also plays a part in creating a disorderly situation. A 2010 University of California, Berkeley study looked at 35 medical malpractice cases arising out of insufficient or incorrect interpreting and translation; in 32 cases the healthcare provider did not provide adequate services – interpreters and translators unfamiliar with medical terminology or untrained staff used ad-hoc to decipher medical transcripts, for example. In 12 of those 32 cases – 37.5%! – family members or friends were used for communicating, including minor children in two cases.

Twelve of the claims also identified the adverse effects of a provider’s failure to translate important documents such as informed consent forms and discharge instructions, which points to the domino effect language barriers can have on a patient’s health. Misdiagnoses lead to improper treatment plans, then patients are sent home with inadequate or incorrect knowledge of their role in follow-up care.

Readily available access to high-quality, professional interpreters and translators requires pre-planning, both because there is always a shortage of qualified language professionals and because the need for language services is unpredictable. To address these challenges, medical facilities need to prioritize the implementation of reliable and professional medical translation services that can ensure accurate and culturally appropriate communication between healthcare providers and non-English speaking patients.

Medical Translation Services Options

Language Services Providers (LSPs) offer comprehensive solutions to bridge the language gap in healthcare settings. Professional medical translators possess expertise in both medical terminology and language translation, ensuring accurate and contextually appropriate translations. They are familiar with the nuances and cultural sensitivities of different languages, enabling them to provide translations that are culturally sensitive and easily understood by patients.

Among the most important documents requiring proper translation are:

  • Patient intake forms
  • Medical transcripts and patient records
  • Financial responsibility waivers
  • Medication labels
  • Discharge information and at-home treatment instructions

Full-service LSPs also provide translation of documentation for clinical trials, which requires adherence to state and federal regulatory requirements. Multilingual clinical trials are increasingly the norm, as it most accurately replicates the current, diverse demographic landscape; in that instance, translators must be especially attentive to cultural leanings, as different language combinations (Korean-to-Japanese or Russian-to-Polish, for example) can often come with innate biases and affinities.

Full-service LSPs also offer interpretation services. Professional interpreters can be available in person, over the phone, or through video conferencing to facilitate real-time communication between healthcare providers and patients during medical consultations, examinations, or procedures.

By utilizing medical translation services, healthcare facilities can improve patient-provider communication, enhance patient satisfaction, and ultimately deliver safer and more effective care to non- and limited English speakers.

Benefits of Medical Translation Services in Healthcare

First and foremost, having medical translation and interpreting services always at the ready promotes equity in healthcare services. Every human deserves the highest level of care – providing adequate access to high-quality language services promotes patient-centered care, ensuring that patients can fully understand their medical conditions, treatment options, and healthcare instructions while empowering them to actively participate in their own healthcare decisions, ultimately improving health outcomes.

Accurate translation of medical records, lab reports, and diagnostic findings ensures that healthcare providers have access to comprehensive and precise information about the patient’s medical history, enabling them to make informed clinical decisions. Physicians are trained to rely heavily on medical transcripts – any undocumented activity did not happen – which underscores the importance of translation accuracy for proper care over time. Additionally, medical translation services help healthcare facilities comply with legal and regulatory requirements regarding language access, while avoiding any issues around health insurance or Medicare/Medicaid coverage.

Choosing the Right Medical Translation Service Provider

Look for a full-service translation and interpreting agency that will match you with language professionals skilled in medical terminology and with healthcare industry experience; a high-quality LSP will also keep the same translators and interpreters with its clients over time. As the client-translator/interpreter relationship matures, familiarity with client preferences and repeat interactions with staff and patients generates a higher quality patient experience and cost efficiencies.

Other factors to consider include:

  • Quality Assurance: Be sure to pinpoint how your LSP assesses and maintains accuracy and precision in its translations.

  • Cultural Competence: Verify that all services are delivered with unwavering attention to cultural nuances and sensitivities.

  • Confidentiality: Confirm your provider’s adherence to confidentiality and data security protocols, as well as HIPAA and other regulatory requirements.

  • Experience: An experienced LSP can provide client referrals and testimonials that acknowledge a commitment to consistent, high-quality services.

It’s not unfair to say that the legal fees and damages associated with medical malpractice, while astronomical, pale in comparison to the loss of life or limb. Establishing ready access to language access for every person means equity in healthfulness, and in life – in a sense, it’s providing the BEST service to prevent the WORST outcomes.


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Rapport International specializes in multilingual communications, providing language translation and interpretation services that are accurate and culturally appropriate. We use the right voice and the correct terminology to avoid liability, customize services to your needs, and deliver on time and within your budget. With our 100% satisfaction guarantee, you can trust that it’s done right. Contact us today if you would like more information or to get a free quote.

Rapport International specializes in multilingual communications, providing language translation and interpretation services that are accurate and culturally appropriate. We use the right voice and the correct terminology to avoid liability, customize services to your needs, and deliver on time and within your budget. With our 100% satisfaction guarantee, you can trust that it’s done right. Contact us today if you would like more information or to get a free quote.

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