By Patricia Jaworski
One of the major roadblocks that many patients face when accessing health care are language barriers.
Limited English proficiency (LEP) patients face challenges not only when making appointments, but in accurately describing their symptoms, and understanding the diagnosis, recommendations and treatment plan specified by medical professionals.
Medical Interpreters can help, but they are not always provided by healthcare professionals, usually due to the cost. However, the failure to provide this service can result in serious medical mistakes. In this post we will examine three medical malpractice cases, and how the errors could have been avoided.
Case 1: Willie Ramirez
Just one word turned into one of the most expensive medical failures.
On January 22nd, 1980, 18-year-old Willie Ramirez experienced a headache. Later that night, he reported feeling a sharp pain as if someone was stabbing the back of his head with a needle, lost his vision and stumbled into his girlfriend’s house.
When he woke up, he was in hospital, post-surgery, and quadriplegic.
Willie Ramirez arrived at the South Florida hospital in a comatose state. His Spanish speaking family explained that he was “intoxicado” – meaning they believed he was suffering with food poisoning. The ER doctors interpreted this as “intoxicated”- believing Willie had intentionally overdosed. Both parties believed that they were communicating effectively, and a Medical Interpreter was not called in.
‘Intoxicado’ and ‘intoxicated’ sound similar but have quite different meanings.
Willie had not overdosed but had suffered from a brain hemorrhage that was not noticed until his conditioned worsened in the next 48 hours, but by then it was too late. Had an Interpreter been present, a neurosurgeon could have been called immediately and Willie would be able to walk today.
Ramirez won a $71 million settlement as a result of the misdiagnosis.
This case highlights why family members do not make the best interpreters.
Case 2: The Tran Family
In a 2010 report on malpractice, it was found of 1,373 claims, at least 35 were linked to failure to provide adequate language interpretation.
One case highlighted in the report was that of a 9-year-old girl who presented to a Californian hospital with severe stomach ache. Her parents only spoke Vietnamese, so the girl and her 16-year-old brother tried to interpret. The staff diagnosed her with a stomach flu and sent them home with medication and instructions written in English.
Later, the girl suffered from a reaction with the medication, had a heart attack and passed away.
An Interpreter was never called, and the staff allowed two children to interpret medical issues, including the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment plan. The malpractice claim settled for $200,000.
This case highlights that children are not equipped for interpreting. They lack the vocabulary and maturity for the role.
Case 3: The Teresa Tarry Case
Teresa Tarry relocated from Britain to Spain with her two sons following her divorce. While being half Spanish herself, Teresa spoke little Spanish.
When she found a lump on her breast, she visited her doctor who assured her it was fine. When it grew rapidly, she went back to have it checked again.
A translation error in her files made doctors believe that Teresa’s mother and sister had both had breast cancer, and so recommended pre-emptive surgery with a double mastectomy. As it turned out, there was no history of cancer in her family, making the procedure unnecessary.
Teresa claims that she was scared and believed the surgeons when they said she had cancer deeming that surgery was necessary. She was assured that everything would be fine post surgery, however she suffered reduced mobility caused by the operation, and was deemed unfit for her job. She is now unable to work and gets by on incapacity benefits.
She sued the hospital for €600,000 for negligence.
This case highlights the need for an Interpreter to clarify medical history. Teresa’s surgery was unnecessary and could have been avoided.
Connect with Remote Interpreting
As demonstrated in the cases above, medical interpreting is a critical role in the presentation, diagnosis and treatment of patients, and can have permanent outcomes and high costs to patients and healthcare practices.
Of course, access to or waiting for onsite interpreters isn’t always possible. Fortunately over the phone (OPI) and video remote interpreting (VRI) make it possible for patients and healthcare professionals to easily gain access to Interpreters from wheverever they are.
It is a fast and affordable alternative to onsite interpreting.
All About Languages provides over the phone and video interpreting in addition to onsite services.
Contact us today to learn more or book our services.
Willie Ramirez https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20081119.000463/full/
Tran Family https://nilservices.com/professional-medical-interpreter-part-2/
Teresa Tarry https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3257463/It-hard-look-touch-Devastated-British-ex-pat-mother-reveals-needless-double-mastectomy-translation-mix-Spain.html