Every year, thousands of patients suffer harm because doctors failed to recognize the signs and symptoms of a serious medical episode before it was too late. Often, physicians could have made the proper diagnosis if the patient was able to communicate their symptoms effectively.

According to the National Health Law Program (NHeLP), an organization that protects and advances the health rights of low-income and underserved individuals and families, some health care facilities may violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 if they fail to provide proper translation services for patients. Under The Act, any hospital accepting federal funding, like Medicare and Medicaid, is obligated to provide language access services.

Even health care providers not accepting federal funds may be compelled to provide such services under applicable state laws. Furthermore, any facility receiving federal health care dollars cannot bill patients for language access services, even if private insurance covers the individual.

Can doctors be held liable for malpractice when family members interpret for patients?

When English proficient limited patients visit hospitals, family members often step in to fill the role as interpreter to communicate the loved one’s symptoms to doctors and nurses. Although this may seem acceptable, relying on the patient’s bi-lingual friends or family can still put the individual in harm’s way when the “translator” incorrectly expresses the patient’s symptoms.

According to guidelines published by Vancouver, Washington-based NWI Global, dozens of medical malpractice patients filed lawsuits every year over allegations the hospital failed to provide proper language access services. NWI Global’s advice to health care providers is simple: any money saved by relying on a patient’s family and friends to translate pales in comparison to the potential damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Lack of informed consent lawsuits

The issue over language access services for English proficient limited patient's cuts to the very core over whether or not patients can truly give informed consent before undergoing medical treatment. Not only could doctors make an incorrect diagnosis, but family or friends acting as translators may also misinterpret a doctor’s explanation of a medical procedure.

The law holds doctors cannot presume patients agree to medical treatment. Ideally, doctors will explain various aspects of proposed treatment regimens including:

  • Description of the procedure or treatment
  • Purpose of the procedure or treatment, including the desired outcome
  • Explaining key risks and potential complications
  • Outlining alternative treatments or procedures, including potential risks
  • Probability of the procedure's success

While medical malpractice laws vary from state to state, informed consent statutes generally hold doctors must consider whether another physician in the same field of expertise discloses a procedure’s risk and whether an average patient would consent to the procedure knowing the risks involved. Without proper translation, it 's hard to say whether non-English speaking patients can truly give informed consent before undergoing surgery or another risky medical procedure.

What can be done to help non-English speaking patients?

To provide quality medical care and ensure patients are not placed at undue risk, hospital and other health care facilities should maintain access to language access services. According to NHeLP, language access plans should include hiring in-house interpreters of most frequently requested languages or contracting with a language access services company.

Avoiding medical malpractice lawsuits starts with putting the best interests of the patient first and adhering to the medically accepted standards of care. When patients do suffer unfortunate harm because of medical negligence, victims should strongly consider speaking with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer about their case.