When Translation Errors Cost Lives

While modern medicine advances at a staggering pace, some hospitals and healthcare providers are finding it difficult to break down language barriers, sometimes resulting in tragic accidents. It’s common to see family members, including children, step in, and translate to hospital staff, often with little fluency.  The following are three tragic cases of malpractice due to translation or interpretation errors.

Willie Ramirez. Might one of the most famous cases in medical history. The 18-year-old was brought to a South Florida hospital by his family, in what appeared to be a coma. The family attempted to communicate in Spanish that he was “intoxicado” or intoxicated. A semi-bilingual staff member translated this as some sort of drug or alcohol intoxication. A professional interpreter would know that “intoxicado” is closer to poisoned. The hospital doctors treated him for a drug or alcohol overdose for the next couple days. Several days later, they learned that he actually had an intracerebral hemorrhage, but by then it was too late. Because of the delay of treatment, Ramirez was left quadriplegic. This mistake ended with a $71-million-dollar lawsuit, all of which was rewarded to the now quadriplegic 18-year-old.

French Hospital. After receiving new equipment, and software to treat prostate cancer, the French hospital noticed that the equipment did not include the instructions, software messages, and menus were in French; It was in English only. The French hospital then relied on bilingual staff to translate the messages and manuals, to learn how to use the new equipment. Needless to say, the software messages and instructions were not translated by the staff correctly, which had disastrous results. Over the course of a year, the hospital administered overdoses of radiation, causing the death of four patients and critically injuring dozens more.

The last example of a mistranslation took place at a hospital in Berlin. In 2013, an instruction manual for the implanting of knee prostheses was incorrectly translated. In English, the instructions stated that the prostheses was non-modular and required cement. But the German translation said just the opposite. Printed on the label was “Prothèse ne nécessitant pas de ciment,” which translates to “Prosthesis requires no cement” Several weeks later the hospital received dozens of calls reporting pain and discomfort with their prostheses. There were at least 47 patients who had received the prostheses without cement resulting in a painful reoperation and large compensation claims.

A common theme in each of these tragedies lies in the fact that they were completely avoidable. There are varying excuses as to why hospitals neglect to provide critical translation or interpretation services, but by law, they must. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin is prohibited. Healthcare professionals including hospitals that receive federal funding are required to provide language assistance to any patient that requests it. With over 23,000 interpreters and 2,400 native translators worldwide, International Translating Company has the experience and resources to ensure world-class accuracy at an affordable price. Since 1969, International Translating Company has translated in over 230 languages, in every field imaginable, because when lives are at stake, every word matters.

By Daniel Ford | April 27, 2018 | Categories: ITC | No Comments

About the Author: Daniel Ford