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Do Language Barriers Contribute to Medical Malpractice?

Philadelphia Medical Malpractice attorneys at The Colleran Firm explain how language barriers can be the source of medical malpractice

While any individual could become the victim of medical malpractice, the question has been raised as to whether language barriers contribute to instances of medical negligence or malpractice. Not everyone who resides in the United States speaks fluent English. In fact, an estimated one-fifth of the U.S. population speaks a foreign language in the comfort of their own homes, according to The Washington Times, with at least 40 percent of these people admitting to being able to communicate in a foreign language more accurately than in English.

If a patient is unable to provide details about his or her exact symptoms, ailment, prior medical conditions, allergies and other pertinent information, how is the patient’s doctor going to be able to provide the level of care and treatment required? Could language barriers have a negative impact on patient safety? Does the lack of professional interpreters contribute to egregious errors or mistakes causing injury or death?

Why Professional Interpretation and Language Services are Needed

Based on a study from the University of California, Berkeley, language barriers, as well as a lack of proper funding for professional interpretation and language services, can dramatically increase safety risks among minority patients. What the study found in 2.5 percent of the claims reviewed was that:

  • In 32 of the 35 cases, competent interpreters were not used
  • In 12 cases, family members or friends were relied on to translate for the patient
  • In 2 cases, minor children were entrusted with translation
  • In 12 cases, consent forms, discharge instructions and other important medical documents were not adequately translated
  • Almost all cases indicated a need for interpretation and language services
  • Many patients suffered catastrophic injuries or death, as a result of these failures.

Poor exchange of information, loss of important cultural information, misunderstanding of physician instruction, poor shared decision-making, or ethical compromises (e.g. difficulty obtaining informed consent,” are some of the ways the Institute of Medicine (IOM) notes in its report “Unequal Treatment” that health care can be adversely affected by language barriers.

One of the primary actions recommended by the National Institutes of Health to address the racial and ethnic disparities present in our health care system is the funding and improvement in the availability of language interpretation services for hospitals, doctor’s offices and other clinical settings. With minority patients having access to professional interpreters, they will be better able to speak with doctors about their medical needs, with less worry of being misunderstood or having their words lost in translation.

The availability of language services may also assist minority patients in gaining a comprehensive understanding of the legal forms they are being asked to sign, the medical advice they are being given, and any doctor-recommended treatments they need to follow for their long-term health and survival.

How to Minimize Your Risk of Injury Due to Language Barriers

Doctors have an obligation to treat their patients with the same level of professionalism and care, regardless of their mastery of the English language. The fact that an individual is not fluent in English does not mean he or she should be unnecessarily put at risk due to language barriers. A doctor being able to communicate with a patient, and vice versa, could be a matter of life and death. Patients who are not fluent in English, and their loved ones, can minimize the risk of suffering considerable injury or harm by taking the following steps to eliminate potential language barriers:

  • Find out if the doctor or hospital where you are seeking treatment offers professional interpretation and language services
  • Make sure you are able to read and review all medical or legal documents in your native language, before you agree to sign
  • Avoid using family or friends as translators and they may not be familiar with certain medical terms and could misinterpret what is being said
  • Until professional interpretation can be provided, ask doctors and nurses to speak slowly and always advise them if you cannot understand what is being said.

Continual advancements to improve communication between doctors and non-English-speaking patients are being made all the time. The National Journal recently reported on an app which can be used to relay simple medical instructions in a southeastern Chinese dialect, as well as touch-screen software with images patients can use to alert nurses to their need for help.

If you or a loved one has suffered injury at the hands of a medical professional, which you believe to have been caused by language barriers, you may be eligible to seek compensation for your injuries and loss related to any medical malpractice. Retaining legal representation at once is advised. Speak with a Philadelphia medical malpractice attorney to learn more about your rights and find out whether you may have a case.


The attorneys at The Colleran Firm handle serious injury cases caused by health care provider negligence and medical malpractice in Pennsylvania & New Jersey.

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The Colleran Firm

2005 Market Street # 1940
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Phone: (215) 972-8000
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