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Translation for Non-English speaking populations in Medical Care of America

              Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash 

Do you ever wonder about the medical workplace for non-English speakers? They barely understand our native language, so how do they get help in an emergency? Well, there can be translators/interpreters that can be called, but they may not always be available in time. Sometimes hospitals leave patients without proper medical care and since we’re living through a pandemic, communication in medical care is vital. So how can America better help non-native speakers?

In March of 2020, a Hungarian woman went to a hospital in Brooklyn for help but nobody understood her or what she needed. She had a cough and fever so the doctors brought her to a unit for corona patients, but all they did was put a warning that she speaks Hungarian; she passed the following day. The doctors said she probably would have gotten better care if she spoke English, but they should have doctors that can translate and understand other languages. If they are unable to do this, they should have assigned interpreters in hospitals that get equal pay to help translate languages. 

Covid-19 patients that spoke little English, had a 35% chance of death. The doctors that couldn’t communicate with non-English speaking patients in hospitals and covid units started having a greater risk for helping their health needs. "We had an inkling that language was going to be an issue early on," says Dr. Karthik Sivashanker, Brigham's then medical director for quality, safety, and equity. "We were getting safety reports saying language is a problem." Seeing how this has affected and continuously affects hospitals, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. “It takes 10 minutes of sitting on the phone to get an interpreter, and that’s valuable time when you’re inundated,” the resident said. “So this utilitarian calculus kicks in. And the most mainstream patients get the best care.” Clearly, patients that are more fluent in English are more likely to receive priority in care than those who are less proficient in the language.

So, how has this gotten worse? Even before the pandemic, people that didn’t speak English had worse health with different ranges of procedures as doctors would struggle to access an interpreter. Also, research shows that professional interpreters made more mistakes than ad hoc interpreters (family members). These things have increased in times of crisis and currently, there is a rising worry for non-English speakers. They are in a dire situation, leaving them sick, alone, and confused about their health, while not getting the proper care. Reports from hospitals show that Black and Latino people have higher hospitalizations and deaths due to Covid-19 when compared to white patients. Also, when comparing Black and White patients there was no difference in their risk to covid, but there was a difference for Latino patients.

A doctor in the Bronx was reported for assisting a patient by using Google Translate from their cellphone to translate with a patient to understand and help them. This shows that there is a high need for interpreters because even though they may not be correct 99% of the time, Google Translate may have a lower percentage for actively and efficiently translating a language. “Like the 2019 study, it found that Google Translate was over 90 percent accurate for Spanish. Tagalog, Korean, and Chinese had accuracy rates ranging from 80 to 90 percent. There was a big drop-off for Farsi, which had a 67 percent accuracy, and Armenian, which had a 55 percent accuracy.” So even though these apps seem effective, most languages have a lower translation efficiency rate. Languages have different uses of tone, vowels, and wording, so attempting to use these apps in the medical force might not be useful because computing devices don’t have the efficient technology to take tones into account.

Doctors also attempt to understand languages they barely know. A doctor in Brooklyn had a Hispanic patient with minor symptoms who said she had heart surgery at 3-years-old. However, he misunderstood and thought she said she had her surgery 3yrs ago. So, he admitted her to a hospital because he thought she was at high risk; if he would’ve known the surgery had occurred when she was 3-years-old, he would have sent her home after assessing her. Imagine a patient is entering a hospital with a major health problem and the doctor assessing them tries to interpret their language but doesn’t clearly understand and mistakes what they said for something else. That patient might get injured or even die from that doctor interpreting incorrectly, and the patient’s family would become devastated. This would add to hospital injuries and deaths because doctors don’t know what they’re doing.  There are about 40,000 - 80,000 injuries to patients annually, and the rate is 10% - 15%, with surgical errors happening commonly at 4,000 each year.

How could we fix these issues? To start, hospitals need to have on the clock interpreters to translate languages and if not physically, then remotely. To hear and accurately be able to understand interpreters over the phone, the internet connection in hospitals should be checked and assessed if there are any issues with networking at least every 6 months. Another thing that should be looked at is having doctors that are bilingual to be able to assist doctors that are not and rather than them using translator apps to help patients because this could be dire. Something that can also be done is teaching/helping non-English speakers learn English because if something is happening major to their health they’ll be able to tell doctors this, even if they’re not all that well at communicating they’ll be able to give small hints they need help. As time passes our environments are changing, technology is growing, and we’re adapting, so hopefully, we’ll see fewer deaths due to translation issues in the future days. 


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