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Hazards of Language Barriers Between LEP patients and Healthcare providers

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Last updated on June 5th, 2023 at 04:20 pm

The Growing Need to Protect LEP Patients through Medical Translation and Professional Interpretation Services

Some of the most significant responsibilities lie in the hands of Healthcare providers. From diagnosis and treatment to end-of-life care, healthcare providers serve an imperative role in improving our quality of life. 

The foundation of providing high quality healthcare services is effective communication between the provider and the patient. In an imaginary world where people share one common language, doctors and patients could communicate smoothly with one another and an appropriate treatment plan would be readily available. In reality, however, language interpretation services and medical translation services must be utilized to enable effective communication between provider and patient who speak different languages. 

What does the growing population of non-native English speakers look like, in the US? 

Approximately 57 million people, 20 percent of the U.S. population, speak a language other than English at home.
Approximately 25 million, 8.6 percent of the U.S. population, are defined as being Limited English Proficient (LEP).

(source: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality)

The health and wellbeing of this demographic is in the hands of healthcare providers and those providers’ services must be supported by qualified medical interpreters and translators.

A commonly cited reason for not enlisting language professionals is the expense. However, when it comes to your patient’s life and your clinic’s reputation of care- the costs of not having professional translation and interpretation resources can be damaging.


Risks of Not Removing Language Barriers

Language barriers are a primary reason why LEP populations underutilize cost efficient, preventive care- thereby unnecessarily increasing their cost of care. Because of language barriers, LEP patients are also faced with receiving subpar health care services because of a failure to communicate.

Here are just some of the risks that LEP patients are exposed to when language barriers are not treated with the help of professional medical interpreters or medical translation services.

Poor understanding of the patient’s condition by doctor or patient (or both!)
Inadequate understanding of treatment plans and diagnoses
Improper or ineffective medical treatment prescribed
Inadequately informed consent
Improper preparation for lab tests and medical procedures

We came across a tragic case illustrating the deadly impact LEP patients are exposed to when no medical translation or interpretation is made available to them:

  • A 9 year old Vietnamese girl died as a result of a bad reaction to a prescribed medication. In events leading up to this, the patient and her 16 year old brother acted as interpreters during their hospital visits. Additionally, documents like consent forms and discharge instructions were all in English, and signed by the patient’s parents who spoke Vietnamese as their primary language. The emergency room physician admitted to misdiagnosing the patient’s condition as well as failing to advise the patient’s parents of the medication’s side effects or warnings.
    (Source: https://www.pacificinterpreters.com/docs/resources/high-costs-of-language-barriers-in-malpractice_nhelp.pdf)

Inability to communicate with healthcare providers can also discourage LEP patients from visiting their healthcare providers. Research shows for instance, that patients with asthma who did not speak the same language as their physicians were less likely to keep scheduled appointments, more likely to use the emergency room and miss follow up medications. If this seems unbelievable, place yourself in an LEP patient’s shoes. If you needed healthcare services in a country whose native language was not your own, and you were unable to communicate with any of the doctors- how comfortable would you be revisiting them, let alone following their prescriptions?


Medical Translation and Interpretation Errors- No Room for “Small” Mistakes!

Errors in medical translation or medical interpretation can place an LEP patient at just as much risk as if there were no such services at all. 

Real life stories of patients who’ve been permanently impacted as a result of mistranslation and misinterpretation serve an urgent reminder of how critical it is to have a professional medical interpreter or translator at the service of LEP patients and their health care providers.
Here is one such story-

  • A misinterpretation of the Spanish word “intoxicado” resulted in lasting damage for an 18 year old who was rushed to an ER with a headache. The term was misinterpreted as “intoxicated” which led the doctor to diagnose the patient with drug overdose. In reality, the patient was actually bleeding in his brain. Due to the misdiagnosis, the patient did not receive the right medical treatment and is now quadriplegic. A lawsuit resulted in settlement of approximately $71 million.
    (Source: https://healthaffairs.org/blog/2008/11/19/language-culture-and-medical-tragedy-the-case-of-willie-ramirez/)

The tragic situation described shows that failure to translate or interpret the smallest bit of medical information results in life impacting consequences. The surefire way to protect the patient and the provider is to hire a professional medical interpreter, and use reliable medical translation services. 

Medical issues are a sensitive and personal topic, one that can be difficult to talk about even for an English proficient speaker. Imagine, then, how much more difficult this is for LEP patients. We must therefore take measures to ensure that our local clinics are fully prepared to effectively treat LEP patients through medical translation services and interpretation.

If you or your organization needs help supporting these patients, JR Language provides LEP translation services you can depend on.




Flora Yu
Flora Yu
Flora was born and raised in New York to parents from Hong Kong and Taiwan. She has a degree in Accounting. She is fluent in Mandarin, and contributes a unique perspective as someone who was raised in 2 different cultures. She finds humor and opportunities to learn as she constantly searches for the balance between the East and West.