For hospital patients who speak limited English, miscommunication between hospital staff and doctors is a serious risk with potentially dire consequences. A misunderstood word or phrase could lead to an incorrect diagnosis or prescription error. A recent study reviewed cases of emergency room visits by patients with limited English proficiency, and concluded that the use of trained interpreters in such situations can dramatically reduce the number of errors.
The researchers, who published their findings in the online edition of the Annals of Emergency Medicine on March 19, 2012, reviewed visits to emergency rooms by patients and families with limited English proficiency. They focused their review on Massachusetts’ two largest pediatric emergency departments, covering a period of thirty months. They identified fifty-seven qualifying emergency room visits within that time period. By reviewing audio recordings of those fifty-seven visits, they identified 1,884 errors in interpretation and determined that eighteen percent of those errors had “potential clinical consequences.”