The Importance of Medical Interpreting in Pediatrics

Medical interpreting is crucial for positive healthcare outcomes for non-English-speaking patients. Numerous studies have found that if language barriers between doctor and patient are not overcome, misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment are among the many negative consequences that are more likely to occur.
Unfortunately, the regular assortment of problems associated with poor communication between doctor and patient are compounded when the patient is a child. For one thing, a lack of English fluency among a young patient’s parents often results in longer hospital stays for kids. The following is a look at why having professional medical interpreters on hand is so important for minor patients.

Parents’ English Fluency and Length of Hospital Stay

Longer hospital stays occur when patients (and their parents) can’t easily navigate the healthcare system. A nine-year study of patients in Children’s Mercy Hospitals and clinics in Kansas City found that children whose parents have limited English proficiency spend more time in the hospital than those whose parents are fluent in English.

In fact, this retrospective study found that pediatric inpatients spend an average of 60 percent longer in the hospital when their parents don’t speak English well. Medical interpreting can remove the language barriers that keep kids in the hospital longer than is necessary. (And considering that the average cost for a day of hospital care is $2,500, having a medical interpreter on hand is a good investment.)

Why Medical Interpreters are Important for Minor Patients

Oftentimes, ad hoc interpreters such as family members are tapped to interpret for children. Indeed, children are often asked to translate for their parents, which has been found to challenge family dynamics and put the children themselves at extreme risk of psychological difficulties later on. When the patient is a child, a cousin, aunt, or parent may be asked to provide on-the-spot interpreting.

Although this approach is convenient, it is not the best choice for quality care. For the reasons outlined below, it is best for hospitals to arrange for professional medical interpreting for pediatric patients.

Specialized training in pediatric interpreting. Pediatric medical interpreters often receive specialized training on how to speak clearly with children. They may speak more slowly, pause more often, choose basic words (“blood doctor” rather than “hematologist”) and connect new information with what the child already knows. All of these techniques improve the chances that the child will be able to communicate his or her experiences to healthcare providers, which is essential for positive health outcomes.

Welcoming children and parents. For those who don’t speak English, a trip to the hospital is especially frightening. A 2003 study titled “Education, Pediatrics and Culture” by Yvan Leanza reported that medical interpreters identify themselves as “welcomers” of patients. When the doctors in this study failed to make culturally appropriate greetings, the medical interpreters often stepped in to smooth things over. Indeed, we can all vouch that the mere presence of someone who speaks our own tongue makes us much more comfortable in foreign environments. Children are more likely to heal if they and their parents feel comfortable while receiving treatment; a medical interpreter can provide a level of reassurance that puts pediatric patients more at ease.

Increased family support. The Leanza study mentioned above also found that medical interpreters often bridge the gap between hospital and home life by assisting with follow-up with patients outside of the examination room. This form of social integration increases the chances that patients (especially children) will correctly follow treatments recommended by doctors.

Understanding cultural differences and offsetting folk treatments. Medical interpreters are more than just “translation machines” – they also bridge cultural differences between doctor and patient. As an example, it isn’t unusual for immigrants to attempt to heal problems with their own folk treatments before turning to Western medicine. Especially if his or her culture of origin matches that of the patient, a medical interpreter can better comprehend the folk remedies that may have been used before the child was brought to the hospital. Doctors must have this information in order to properly apply treatments and to educate the family on how to care for the child in the future.

As we have seen, having a medical interpreter on hand to translate for pediatric patients results in various positive outcomes: shorter hospital stays, better cultural understanding and higher levels of overall patient comfort.


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