Old News: Preference for the Unprofessional

by Translation Guy on August 11, 2010

Back when I was calling in my stories from the telephone booth, I was also learning about the care and feeding of editors. They like a hook, something to make the story you pitch seem fresh and newsworthy. So what’s an intrepid reporter supposed to do when he wants to rehash some three-year-old study on bad medical interpreting practice? Regular readers will know that this little topic is my top choice for serious axe-grinding.

OK. But still no hook. How about this… Kids’ doctors avoid professional translation. 1000 days later, has anything changed?

Hmmm. Weak. It will just have to do…

This from UPI, “U.S. pediatricians use family members instead of professional translators with non-English-speaking patients, says a new study. [At least it was new back in April 2007.]

“Seventy percent of physicians surveyed said they use the patient’s bilingual family member to relay health information to a patient whose primary language is not English, says a new study done at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“The survey further showed 58 percent also involve bilingual staff members. Only 40 percent reported using professional interpreters, and only 35 percent offered translated written materials in their office.”

The study found that medicos were more apt to use pros if someone else was paying for it. Dependence on professional translators was highest in states where translation services were covered by public health insurance.

“‘There is an urgent need to promote appropriate language services through the use of interpreters, translated written materials, provider training and third-party reimbursement,’ said Minkovitz [one of the authors of the study].”

And a thousand days later, what’s changed? Well, not much. Danielle Rose et al. published survey results: Use of Interpreters by Physicians Treating Limited English Proficient Women with Breast Cancer. And guess what? Cancer doctors don’t use professional interpreters either. “Seventy-five percent reported using untrained interpreters to communicate with LEP [Limited English Proficiency] patients. Only one-third of physicians reported good availability of trained medical interpreters or telephone interpreter services when needed.”

For victims and loved ones with a sick child or cancer diagnosis, getting this care through the uncertain conduit of an ignorant amateur must be truly disheartening. Clarity and understanding are in short supply whenever we near the undiscovered country. What an abrogation of care!  And this bilingual communication burden falls disproportionately on younger family members, ready or not.

Caregivers’ reluctance to use professional interpretation makes economic sense, but I think there is a lot of attitudinal stuff wrapped up with interpreter avoidance. Margaret Gadon et al., in their study, Caring for patients with limited English proficiency, asked some practitioners what was up.

“Health care providers in private practice recognize the importance of overcoming language barriers. However, perceived barriers to implementing cost-effective strategies to these barriers are high. Physicians in private practice would benefit from information about how to best overcome language barriers in their practices efficiently and affordably.”


  1. Oh, Ken. Without even looking, I’m guessing your UPI story buried the lead in the 5th paragraph. Or maybe only the AP does that… anywhos, welcome to my bugaboos.

    As for medical interpreting and cost — it’s not surprising that docs are willing to go with pros when someone else is footing the bill, but I think there are two things we as an industry can do to make sure patients get as much good care and communication as they deserve. First is to continue to highlight the risks of using unqualified amateurs. Sure, it’s an old story, but the fear of liability moves mountains. Second, and really far more proactive, is educate medical professionals on cost-effective ways to deal with interpreting. If they’re going to use existing staff, get them trained. Find out what kind of options the consortiums and hospital groups they belong to offer.

    I wrote about medical interpreter training a few years ago for Multilingual and used some of the scary stories as examples. Sad that it’s not going away.

    Let’s get the reporters to also report on the other options. Not very sexy, but the right way to end the story.

    • Ken says:

      Educating clients when it costs them money teaches us the value of the translation dollar. Thanks for your comments, Alexandra.

  2. Poor patients, but what about the doctors? It can only be hypothesized that these language

    barriers are commonly perceived by health care professionals and they are a source of

    workplace stress in acute care environments…

  3. You used to be a jopurnalist Ken?

    • Ken says:

      I was a news hound, yes.

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