Most patients come to see a physician with some sort of medical problem; it is the primary goal of a medical doctor to understand and resolve it using the following four steps: collect information based on patient's medical history and symptoms; recognize all possible clues and decide what possible diagnoses to pursue further; use evidence-based knowledge that can provide a possible solution; and follow through with a decision or a recommendation.
When looking at this process in more depth, it is clear that the step of collecting information, including patient's illness history, cannot take place without an open engagement and a clear communication with the patient. A medical provider needs to ask questions and fully comprehend each response, taking into account the idiosyncrasies that surround the patient's perception of the problem by the manner in which he/she explains symptoms and their chronology. Having a clear understanding of all clues is, therefore, key to getting closer to an accurate diagnosis.
For this reason, we can conclude that communication is the first and foremost diagnostic tool and platform for medical providers. And with such premise in mind, "effective communication" is pivotal to the diagnostic process, thus making the task of interpreting accurately and completely one that can have a profound effect for the patient.
Let's take a closer look at the importance of preserving patient's language when describing symptoms. In a medical scenario where the patient complains of chest pain, if the patient says, "the pain feels like a pressure" and the interpreter relays it as, "the pain feels like burning", the distortion of pain description can be significant enough to mislead the medical doctor to possibly follow with a question that may be related to heartburn or indigestion, rather than to difficulty breathing under physical exertion, especially when the patient's medical history can also be misleading.
Recognizing the great value of communication in health care is crucial to reduce the risk of errors and adverse events. When delivering services to a patient with Limited English Proficiency, no organization should risk the chance of error by allowing a family member or non-qualified and un-vetted staff members to relay information between patient and provider. Preserve your patient's language and maintain the highest standards of quality on the delivery of sensitive information for all your patients. You have already invested in the best medical specialists and state of the art technology to distinguish your excellence - don't compromise your investment. Trained interpreters and bilingual staff, whose interpreting competencies have been vetted, will help accomplish that mission.
Rosanna Balistreri, MA
Founder, REACH-reaching diversity