Patients who are not proficient in English — growing in number in Massachusetts and nationally — are more likely to experience medical errors and to misunderstand diagnoses. But experts warn that technologies like Google Translate and smart-phone medical interpretation apps are often unreliable and potentially dangerous ways to communicate with patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) in clinical settings.
"I would not use those programs to communicate with a patient, and at Lahey we don't use them," said Ursula Tice-Alarcon, manager of interpreter services at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington. "We provide medical interpreters in person primarily, with minimal to no wait time. We aim to do that for the vast majority of our non-English speaking population of patients. When an in-person interpreter is not promptly available, we resource immediately to provide the highest-quality services via video remote and phone interpretation."
Tice-Alarcon and others point to dozens of cases in which medical interpretation (spoken) and translation (written) programs have been severely and almost comically wrong, leading to adverse events like patient misidentification and improper invasive procedures.