Anyone who has sought medical treatment in a foreign country understands the frustration of trying to communicate symptoms or the cause of an injury to a non-English speaking doctor or nurse. According to a new study, for non-English speaking patients in Connecticut or nationwide, the potential for miscommunication can also be life-threatening.

The moment you enter the ER, you want to be able to quickly communicate the illness or injury, consult with a doctor, and obtain appropriate treatment. Unfortunately, for non-English speaking patients and their families, visits to the ER can be even more complicated. In many cases, patients can suffer harm because of miscommunication. According to new research, professional translators in the ER can alleviate the language barriers that can result in injury or medical negligence.

Communicating with a doctor is critical to ensuring that your symptoms are properly documented and that any prior medical history is made clear. According to the study, mistakes were twice as likely when no interpreter was present or if the interpreter was an amateur. In addition to minimizing mistakes, the use of translators can also cut costs related to unnecessary tests and improper prescriptions. Proper diagnosis at the outset can lead to quicker and more effective treatments.

Trained interpreters were able to successfully communicate symptoms and important health information, rather than relying on an amateur interpreter, such as a family member or bilingual hospital staff member. Hospitals and doctors can prevent serious injury or fatalities caused by medical mistakes, including misdiagnosis, overmedication, conflicts with medical history or mixed prescriptions, as well as overlooked symptoms.

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