Errors in medical interpretation and their potential clinical consequences in pediatric encounters

Pediatrics. 2003 Jan;111(1):6-14. doi: 10.1542/peds.111.1.6.

Abstract

Background: About 19 million people in the United States are limited in English proficiency, but little is known about the frequency and potential clinical consequences of errors in medical interpretation.

Objectives: To determine the frequency, categories, and potential clinical consequences of errors in medical interpretation.

Methods: During a 7-month period, we audiotaped and transcribed pediatric encounters in a hospital outpatient clinic in which a Spanish interpreter was used. For each transcript, we categorized each error in medical interpretation and determined whether errors had a potential clinical consequence.

Results: Thirteen encounters yielded 474 pages of transcripts. Professional hospital interpreters were present for 6 encounters; ad hoc interpreters included nurses, social workers, and an 11-year-old sibling. Three hundred ninety-six interpreter errors were noted, with a mean of 31 per encounter. The most common error type was omission (52%), followed by false fluency (16%), substitution (13%), editorialization (10%), and addition (8%). Sixty-three percent of all errors had potential clinical consequences, with a mean of 19 per encounter. Errors committed by ad hoc interpreters were significantly more likely to be errors of potential clinical consequence than those committed by hospital interpreters (77% vs 53%). Errors of clinical consequence included: 1) omitting questions about drug allergies; 2) omitting instructions on the dose, frequency, and duration of antibiotics and rehydration fluids; 3) adding that hydrocortisone cream must be applied to the entire body, instead of only to facial rash; 4) instructing a mother not to answer personal questions; 5) omitting that a child was already swabbed for a stool culture; and 6) instructing a mother to put amoxicillin in both ears for treatment of otitis media.

Conclusions: Errors in medical interpretation are common, averaging 31 per clinical encounter, and omissions are the most frequent type. Most errors have potential clinical consequences, and those committed by ad hoc interpreters are significantly more likely to have potential clinical consequences than those committed by hospital interpreters. Because errors by ad hoc interpreters are more likely to have potential clinical consequences, third-party reimbursement for trained interpreter services should be considered for patients with limited English proficiency.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Ambulatory Care Facilities / standards
  • Ambulatory Care Facilities / statistics & numerical data
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Communication Barriers*
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Language
  • Massachusetts
  • Medical Errors / statistics & numerical data*
  • Medical History Taking / standards
  • Multilingualism
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Translations*
  • Verbal Behavior