A recent study reveals that non-English speaking patients who are provided with a professional interpreter in the emergency department (ED) of a hospital are far more likely to be satisfied with the experience and to understand information from health care professionals.

The increase in patients who do not speak English has led hospitals to use a variety of interpretation methods, including having a friend or family member translate for the patient, using a hospital staff member as an informal interpreter, or finding a physician who speaks the patient’s language. These methods are often hit or miss, leading to confusion about what was said, and the potential for errors.

For the study, which was published online in Annals of Emergency Medicine, researchers used professionally trained medical interpreters. The study, led by Ann D. Bagchi, PhD, of Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, N.J., took place in two New Jersey hospital EDs over a period of seven months. During some blocks of time, professional interpreters were provided to Spanish-speaking patients. During control blocks of time, interpretation methods took place as usual.

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Results indicated that 96% of the patients provided with the professional interpreter were “very satisfied” with their ability to communicate with health care professionals during their time in the ED compared with only 24% of control patients. Similarly, almost 95% of physicians reported being “very satisfied” when an interpreter was used compared with 17% when the interpreter was not used. The same was true with both triage and discharge nurses who had over 94% satisfaction rates when an interpreter was used.

Most important, perhaps, was the percentage of patients reporting an ability to understand what was happening in the ED. Ninety-three percent of patients who were provided with an interpreter reported that it was “very easy” to understand what was transpiring during their ED visit. Less than 18% of the control group reported that level of understanding.

The researchers speculated that beyond increased satisfaction levels, improved communication from in-person interpreter services might yield additional benefits, including:

  • More accurate patient assessment on arrival in the ED;
  • Assistance in explaining procedures necessary for diagnosis and treatment;
  • Anxiety relief for patients unfamiliar with ED tests and procedures;
  • Improvement in patient safety and reduction in potential errors by improved communication and understanding of the patient’s individual needs; and,
  • Improved compliance because patients can understand the discharge plan.