Examples of Problematic Language Barrier Situations in Healthcare
In 1990, the Limited English Proficiency (LEP) population in the United States came in at 6.1%. By 2000, that number rose to 8.1% and in 2010 the LEP population was at 8.7%. In those brief 20 years, the U.S. saw an influx of over 11 million LEP individuals. As the LEP population has risen, so too has the need for qualified language services.
Individuals with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) struggle to read, write, speak or understand English. Meaningful understanding is particularly important when it comes to individual health and well-being. In order to provide informed consent to healthcare information, LEP individuals must possess a complete and meaningful understanding of the condition, procedure, and any associated risk. This can be achieved through the use of a qualified medical interpreter. When language services are not utilized, miscommunication can lead to misdiagnosis, medical error, and poor patient outcomes. Below are examples of problematic language barrier situations in healthcare.
In Salinas Valley, California, there is a large indigenous Triqui and Mixteco speaking population from Southern Mexico. Several instances have occurred in which indigenous interpreters were needed to relay culturally sensitive information to patients and family members in the area. Due to a lack of resources, patients and health care providers attempted to communicate via improvised non-verbal cues and gestures. As a result, one of the LEP patients suffered a heart attack and had a pacemaker installed without the opportunity to communicate in her native tongue. A practitioner resorted to telling a family she had exhausted all options and could not save their one-year-old child who suffered from fatal congenital heart failure without the assistance of an interpreter. She never knew whether or not they fully understood.
In South Florida, an unresponsive LEP patient was brought to the hospital in a coma state. His Spanish-speaking relatives told health professionals that he was “intoxicado”, meaning “nauseous,” but were misinterpreted as saying “intoxicated”. No qualified interpreters were brought to the scene. As a result, the patient was admitted to the intensive care unit with a diagnosis of “probable intentional drug overdose”. The patient became quadriplegic as a result of the misdiagnosis. The hospital paid $71 million in a malpractice settlement.
These great disparities in care can be avoided with the use of a qualified interpreter. Interpreters who are medically qualified can quickly determine when a cultural difference is negatively impacting patient-provider communication and act accordingly, resulting in improved patient care and outcome.
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