Why EDs need language interpreters to prevent patient harm

Language barriers during medical emergencies may compromise care, highlighting the importance of medical interpreter services in emergency departments, an analysis in Annals of Emergency Medicine found.

Five things to know:

1. "Access to quality medical interpreter services is a public health issue," said lead study author Jay Brenner, MD. "Using trained interpreters has been shown to lower readmissions and limits the possibility of patient misunderstanding, physician misdiagnosis or mistreatment."

2. A lack of hospital resources or access to trained personnel may lead to an underutilization of interpreter services, the authors wrote. Another cause for the absence of these services may be because no specific guidelines exist for emergency healthcare providers in this area.

3. Many states have laws about access to language services in healthcare. Massachusetts, for example, requires interpreter services to be available at its facilities. New Jersey and Rhode Island tie hospital licensure to provision of services, and other states have laws about communication for HIV, cancer, reproductive health or other specific conditions.

4. An ED provider may be a trained medical interpreter, but in other facilities, physicians may rely on computer interpretation programs to communicate with patients. These tools may have certain inherent biases or limitations, the authors wrote.

5. The authors say EDs can improve language services by improving physician education in training and sensitivity; increasing community engagement to empower local residents to know their rights before they have an emergency; partnering with local services to identify and support specific local needs; and developing more comprehensive policies that support both education and funding for interpreting services.

"The decision to provide language assistance can impact patient outcomes," Dr. Brenner said. "There are practical limitations if you don't have a trained expert readily available. In time-sensitive emergencies, you do the best you can."

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