Using professional translators for non-English speaking patients in the emergency department (ED) of hospitals may reduce miscommunications and errors, according to a recent study published online ahead of print in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

The study, led by Glenn Flores, MD, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, examined interactions in two Massachusetts pediatric EDs. Spanish-speaking patients or family members used either a professional interpreter, an ad hoc amateur interpreter, or no interpreter. Results indicated that mistakes that could have clinical consequences, such as wrong doses of medication, were about twice as likely with either no interpreter or with an amateur translator.

The study looked at 57 situations in which the patient or family spoke very limited English. Twenty families were helped by a professional interpreter, 27 by a non-professional translator such as a relative or bilingual hospital staff member, and 10 had no translation help. While mistakes were made in all of the translations, they were far more serious with no translation or with amateur interpreters.

The study found that even with trained interpreters, 12% of translation mistakes could pose risks to the patient. With no interpreter or an amateur one, that number rose to between 20% and 22%. Errors were least common with interpreters who had 100 or more hours of training. In those cases, only 2% of translation mistakes had the potential for patient harm.

The study found that hours of training, rather than years of experience, were associated with a lower rate of errors. The study authors concluded that “these findings suggest that requiring at least 100 hours of training for interpreters might have a major impact on reducing interpreter errors and their consequences in health care while improving quality and patient safety.”