Non-English Speaking Hospital Patients at Greater Risk of Medical Errors, Study Finds
Hospital patients who speak little or no English are at greater risk of medical error or misdiagnosis if they are not provided with an interpreter, according to a new study, Newsday reports. The study calls on hospitals to increase the number of interpreters available to patients as a way to reduce the risk of errors. Researchers at the Access Project, a health care resource center at Brandeis University, conducted a survey of 4,161 uninsured individuals with limited English proficiency who were treated between May and August 2000 at 23 hospitals in 16 cities. Of those patients, 3,557 said that they did not need an interpreter and 604 patients said that they did. In the latter group, 273 patients received language assistance and 331 did not. According to the study's main findings:
- Twenty-seven percent of patients without an interpreter said they left the hospital without understanding how to take their medications, compared to just 2% of those with an interpreter (Ramirez, Newsday, 4/26).
- Roughly one-third of patients without an interpreter said they would not return to the facility, even if they obtained health insurance (Brewington/Caldwell, Orlando Sentinel, 4/26).
- More than 50% of those without an interpreter said hospital staff never asked them if they needed help in paying for medical care, compared to around one-third of patients with an interpreter.
"The patients in our survey who could not speak English are sending a strong message: Failure to communicate effectively may cost patients their health -- and be bad business for doctors and hospitals," Dennis Andrulis, a professor at State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn and the study's lead author, said. The report concludes that greater use of translators by hospitals could significantly reduce medical errors among patients who cannot understand doctors' instructions. In addition, the report suggests that providing interpreters would improve patients' knowledge of public insurance programs. Elena Rios, president of the National Hispanic Medical Association, said, "Medical interpreters should become recognized as allied health professionals who bill for this service, which should be reimbursable just like lab services." According to researchers, the survey results are "consistent with other ... studies which have found that patients experiencing language barriers are less satisfied with their care, less likely to have a usual source of care, less likely to keep follow-up appointments and less likely to receive preventive care" (Access Project release, 4/25). The study, "What a Difference an Interpreter Can Make: Health Care Experiences of Uninsured with Limited English Proficiency," is available online. Note: You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the study.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.