Language Barriers’ Harmful Effect to Medical Care

Jacob Moxham


September 18, 2013

Mistranslations can cause very harmful effects in medical care. People can be diagnosed with incorrect maladies purely because they could not accurately describe their symptoms.

If somebody goes in to accident emergency one of the first things they are asked to do is describe their own symptoms. If nobody speaks their native language, then they have to manage English as best they can which often ends up in them either over or under exaggerating.

Imagine what kind of problems this could cause! In the English health care system we try to treat people as fast as possible, this means some assumptions have to be made. If people cannot describe what has happened to them accurately they end up with the wrong medicines or even more drastic treatments which are just unnecessary. This costs the health system money they could have saved and puts people through stress they could have avoided.

The numbers of people with little to no English is on the rise. This means these problems will become more common. We need to raise the numbers of translators and provide as much help as possible. A good idea would be ESL user friendly diagnosis forms; that way they could learn a small set of vocabulary and be able to fill out a simple form with the most common ailments on.

It is actually illegal to discriminate ESL patients and provide worse treatment because of their lack of English. In 1998 an amendment to The Civil Rights Act was made so that health care systems should provide adequate language assistance to those who needed. This obviously has not been followed since almost half of the ESL people needing treatment in the US do not get any form of assistance.

One of the biggest problems that is encountered is the lack of successful counselling. Even if we get by the lack of instant care in emergencies we still have long-term care to think about. If an ESL person is trying to quit smoking, drugs or diet better they need to fully understand who they are talking to. For it to be effective the person they converse with should be able to understand their personal and regional dialect as well as their tone. This would be difficult to achieve across the board but we should at least have people speaking the major international languages in as many places as possible.

People who cannot speak very good English are less likely to return for follow-up appointments after care. They are also less likely to complete courses of medication. This is obviously not ideal; it must be the health care system which pushes them away. We need to convey the message that we care about them and can provide care for them. There are two ways to achieve this, one is to have more people speaking their language for them to converse with. Second, ESL patients could start learning the English language as well.  The latter option not only benefits the ESL patient’s communication skills, but they will also get the proper and more accurate treatment.

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