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Interpreters May Reduce the Risk of Hospital Medication Errors

David W. Hodges
Partner at Kennedy Hodges LLP practicing pharmacy error, medical malpractice and personal injury law
Posted on May 07, 2012
A recent study claims that having translators on-hand in hospital emergency rooms may limit the number of harmful medication mistakes in non-English-speaking patients. 

The study, published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, involved data collected from two pediatric ER facilities in Massachusetts. The study found that serious drug mistakes, such as giving the wrong medication or improper dosage, were twice as likely to occur if there were no interpreters, or if the translator was an amateur. 

The families involved in the study were primarily Spanish speaking; 20 families received help from a professional interpreter, 27 used a non-professional interpreter, and ten families did not have any translator available.

In cases where trained interpreters were available, about 12 percent of translation errors carried potential health risks to a child. But when the interpreter was a non-professional, such as a family member or a bilingual hospital staff member, up to 22 percent of harmful errors were reported. 

U.S. hospitals that receive federal funding are required by law to provide some form of translation services for patients. However, the kinds of translation services may vary; some include professional on-staff interpreters, while some rely on telephone or video-based translation services. 

Lead researcher Glenn Flores, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, says that errors are dependent on the kind of translation services received, but also the amount of training an interpreter has undergone. When the interpreters had 100 hours of training or more, only two percent of their translation slips had the potential for doing the child harm.

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