The need for interpreters in hospital emergency rooms

We’ve written before about how so many medical and medication errors occur due to miscommunications between staff members. Another important part of communication often overlooked is communication between medical staff and the patient.

Especially in large cities like Pittsburgh, emergency room staff will often be placed in the position of treating patients that do not speak English. A recent study has found that wrong medication doses were given nearly twice as much when the emergency room was not staffed with professional interpreters that could clearly communicate with the patient being seen.

There are approximately 25 million United States residents that have limited vocabulary in the English language. Also, most patients would prefer to have a translator present when receiving medical care.

However, often medical staff will rely on amateur interpreters, and such interpreters are much more prone to errors. In one particular instance a family friend told emergency staff that a child patient had no allergies to medications – while in fact the friend did not actually ask the mother if this was the case. One could only imagine how such a situation could go badly wrong if the child in fact had an allergic reaction to the medicine administered.

Obviously the goal is to reduce the number of errors that will lead to incorrect medical information. Just 100 hours of training of interpreters will greatly reduce the number of miscommunications that can take place. Still, medical facilities will often take shortcuts by not hiring the necessary staff to prevent medical errors from occurring. When hospitals go cheap, such hospitals are more likely to be sued by injured patients and their attorneys.

Source:, “Interpreters in ER may limit medical errors: study,” April 17, 2012