Language barriers complicate treatment

 
By HSC Staff Writer • Published: November 8th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat
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Living in a foreign country can be frustrating if you aren’t fluent in the language. But an otherwise harmless speech barrier can prove deadly in the event of a medical emergency.

Medical communication experts say misunderstandings between physicians in the United States and their non-English speaking patients are more common… and their effects more disastrous… than many Americans realize.

More than fifty-million United States residents speak a language other than English at home. For many of these people, even the most routine trips to the doctor can be taxing. And bringing along a family member or friend to speak on their behalf doesn’t always help. Ad hoc translators with limited English proficiency… or conversely, who are not fluent in the patient’s language… often do more harm than good by inadvertently conveying wrong information.

According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, miscommunication between patients and physicians often results in inappropriate medical care or causes delays in treatment that can result in serious illness or even death.

Patients who face medical communication barriers are less likely to access routine health care or pursue follow-up treatment after being hospitalized. In addition, they suffer higher rates of drug complications and are more likely to be diagnosed with severe psychopathology.

The solution, say communication experts, is for insurance companies to reimburse physicians who provide medical interpreters for non-English speaking patients. That way, physicians will be assured they are providing the proper treatment for their patients.