Why doctors skip medical interpreters, and how that damages physician-patient communication

Physicians are often pressed for time, both in the hospital and the clinic.

And for those who don’t speak English, that represents a huge problem. Not only are many cash-strapped hospitals cutting back on interpreter services, those that have them aren’t always being utilized.

As surgeon Pauline Chen notes, “Patients who speak English poorly or not at all face longer hospital stays, an increased risk of misdiagnoses and medical errors, and decreased access to acute and preventive care services, often regardless of socioeconomic or insurance status.”

She points to an interesting study showing that doctors use interpreter services judiciously, triaging patient encounters into those that are “high stakes” or not. Conversations about advance directives, for instance, would be a high stakes discussion necessitating the need of a translator. Routine rounding on a patient would be considered less important.

The problem is, for a hospitalized patient who speaks little English, every encounter can be perceived as important, and ideally, deserving of proper communication with their doctor.