The Liability of Mistranslation and Interpretation Errors in the Medical Field

Some graduating physicians do not take the Hippocratic Oath now. “First do no harm” has been replaced with a more modern version. This doesn’t make it any less important to protect patients at all costs. There is a growing problem, however, and it is getting in the way of the physicians’ ability to always provide the best care for their patients. This problem is a lack of qualified medical translators and interpreters, which is leading to medical errors and leaving patients with long-term pain and suffering—even death! 

Take the case of Teresa Terry, from Spain. Doctors performed a double mastectomy on her when the initial lump she went in for was benign.  Somehow, the doctors perceived that she had a family history of breast cancer. This was all because of a mistranslation in her medical records. They thought her mom and sister had breast cancer. So, between these mistranslated records and the inability to communicate with her doctors in her native language, an unnecessary surgery happened. This is a high price for a patient to pay!  

In another instance, Sandra George from Macedonia took a friend to the doctor with her to interpret her results. She left her consultation thinking the tumor on her vestibular nerve was cancerous. This misinformation continued, despite her being accompanied by a certified Macedonian interpreter in follow-up visits. Due to interpretation errors, Sandra continued to believe that her tumor was malignant.  In addition to undergoing an unnecessary surgery for the tumor, one of the surgeons struck her facial nerves during the operation, leaving her with palsy on one side of her face.  Once again, there was an unnecessary surgery resulting in devastating, lasting effects.  

One of the costliest medical translation errors was that of Willie Ramirez. When Willie was 18 years old, he got a horrific headache and went to the hospital to get checked out. While in the hospital, the Ramirez family didn’t have a Spanish interpreter to help them communicate.  They told the ER physicians they thought Willie was intoxicado. In Spanish, the interpretation into English usually means that someone is having a reaction from food or drink (i.e., an allergic reaction). The doctor’s understanding of this word was an overdose. Therefore, Willie was initially treated for an overdose when he was instead suffering from a brain bleed. This wrong and untimely diagnosis led to Willie being a paraplegic for the rest of his life. The brain bleed was discovered a few days later, and too much time had passed to reverse the effects. Because the hospital failed to provide the Ramirez family with a Spanish interpreter, they were sued for $71 million dollars. However, Willie will never be able to walk for the rest of his life.

These are just a few examples of horrible mishaps due to the lack of qualified medical translation or interpretation in the medical setting. This is a form of neglect. Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. There are numerous articles and instances documented daily. To read more on this topic, visit any of the following sites: 

  1. (Hispanic Outlook on Education Magazine – “Lost in Translation: Hispanics Victimized by America’s Third Leading Cause of Death”)

  2. (When patients speak limited English be wary of online tools)

  3. (“In the Hospital, a Bad Translation Can Destroy a Life”)  

While this is a tragic situation, it is one that can be solved when hospitals hire professional translators and interpreters to assist patients with limited English proficiency. 

By Rachel Kraft

Marketing Manager