New Research Documents the Cost Effectiveness of Medical Interpreters

What we already knew has been made official by research: Trained medical interpreters save hospitals money. This confirmation comes from an April 2012 study from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which discovered that overcoming communication barriers actually translates into money saved – which makes a good business case for offering consistent medical interpreter services in America’s hospitals.

Details on the Medical Interpreter Study

In the paper “Professional Language Interpretation and Inpatient Length of Stay and Readmission Rates,” published in the online Journal of General Internal Medicine, Dr. Mary Lindholm et al analyzed the health outcomes of 3,071 Limited English Proficiency (LEP) patients admitted to the university hospital between 2004 and 2007. Looking at admission, discharge and readmission hospital records allowed Lindholm and her colleagues to analyze length of stay and readmission differences between LEP patients who received medical interpreter services at admission, at discharge or both. Using multivariable regressive models allowed this study’s authors to control for age, language, gender and illness severity.

The findings of this study were quite clear: The LEP patients stayed longer and had to return to the hospital more frequently when no medical interpreter services were provided. To be specific, the researchers found that LEP patients who did not receive professional medical interpreting at admission or both admission and discharge stayed between .75 and 1.47 days longer, on average, than their counterparts who did get a medical interpreter. Moreover, those who did receive the help of a medical interpreter were less likely to be readmitted to the hospital within 30 days. In other words, medical interpreting made for shorter (read: less expensive) hospital stays and fewer readmissions.

Unnecessary Costs Accrued Without a Medical Interpreter

Communication barriers between patient and doctor make it harder to efficiently provide care. From misdiagnoses to the ordering of unnecessary tests, there are many ways the lack of medical interpreter services can weigh down on hospitals’ bottom line, while also hurting patients.

For instance, as NPR recently reported, following the collapse of an 18-year old boy in Florida, his Spanish-speaking mother and girlfriend told paramedics that he had been feeling “intoxicado” – Spanish for nauseated. Had a medical interpreter been on hand, this could have been made clear. Unfortunately, medical interpreter services were never arranged, and emergency personnel assumed “intoxicado” meant “high on drugs.” They therefore spent 36 hours incorrectly treating the young man for overdose. They didn’t think to look for neurological problems until 36 hours later; only then did they find he had been suffering from intense bleeding in the brain. It was too late, however, to prevent severe brain damage, and the patient is now quadriplegic.

The same healthcare situation would look very different with a medical interpreter present. Because interpreters are fluent in and culturally aware of the patient’s language, they can provide precise, rapid interpreting on the spot.

The Business Case for Medical Interpreter Services

This research provides hospital administrators with a clear choice: Employ a medical interpreter, or waste money on unnecessarily long hospital stays and negligence lawsuits. (Of course, hospitals can also choose to contract out for medical interpreter services.) As more research is done on the health and economic impact of insufficient interpreting for LEP patients, administrators are appreciating that working with medical interpreter services makes good economic sense – not to mention the fact that a medical interpreter’s involvement usually improves health outcomes, as well.

As it stands, the International Medical Interpreters Association calculates that more than 60 percent of patients in need of a medical interpreter never get one. Here’s hoping that statistic will improve as hospital administrators understand the financial impact of insufficient medical interpreter services.

[ Photo by: boliston, on Flickr, via CC License ]

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