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Language Barriers to effective healthcare

20/03/2012

This is the start of an article in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Glenn Flores, who has made a study of dangerous mistranslations in the US healthcare industry. The whole article is here: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp058316

A 12-year-old Latino boy arrived at a Boston emergency department with dizziness and a headache. The patient, whom I’ll call Raul, had limited proficiency in English; his mother spoke no English, and the attending physician spoke little Spanish. No medical interpreter was available, so Raul acted as his own interpreter. His mother described his symptoms:

La semana pasada a el le dio mucho mareo y no tenía fiebre ni nada, y la familia por parte de papá todos padecen de diabetes.” (Last week, he had a lot of dizziness, and he didn’t have fever or anything, and his dad’s family all suffer from diabetes.)

“Uh hum,” replied the physician.

The mother went on. “A mí me da miedo porque el lo que estaba mareado, mareado, mareado y no tenía fiebre ni nada.” (I’m scared because he’s dizzy, dizzy, dizzy, and he didn’t have fever or anything.)

Turning to Raul, the physician asked, “OK, so she’s saying you look kind of yellow, is that what she’s saying?”

Raul interpreted for his mother: “Es que si me vi amarillo?” (Is it that I looked yellow?)

“Estaba como mareado, como pálido” (You were like dizzy, like pale), his mother replied.

Raul turned back to the doctor. “Like I was like paralyzed, something like that,” he said.

If Raul received inappropriate care owing to his misinterpretation, he would not be alone. One interpreter, mistranslating for a nurse practitioner, told the mother of a seven-year-old girl with otitis media to put (oral) amoxicillin “in the ears.” In another case, a Spanish-speaking woman told a resident that her two-year-old had “hit herself” when she fell off her tricycle; the resident misinterpreted two words, understood the fracture to have resulted from abuse, and contacted the Department of Social Services (DSS). DSS sent a worker who, without an interpreter present, had the mother sign over custody of her two children. Clearly, catastrophes can and do result from such miscommunication.

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