ANU research shows effects of interpreter underuse in health consults

22 November 2016

The Australian National University (ANU) has undertaken research of patients attending a community based refugee health service over a two year period from July 2011 to June 2013. Over 470 patients attended with 74.5% requiring an interpreter.

The aim of the study was to determine adverse outcomes highlighted by patients that are attributable to failure of appropriate interpreter use in health consultations. Twenty four incidents of adverse outcomes were reported by a total of twenty one patients.

Failures occurred in the areas of consent, complex instructions, and in obtaining a proper history. This resulted in four incidents of physical harm, and nine incidents resulted in delays in investigations and diagnosis.

The study highlighted the implications:
•   Risk of harm resulting from failure of interpreter use including consent for procedures, instruction of hospital discharge medications, and inappropriate use of family members as interpreter.
•   Risk of misleading information and miscommunication occurring when using relatives or friends as interpreters.

The research highlighted the urgent need for proactive service policies and health staff education around appropriate use of interpreters. Health workers should use an interpreter when there is any doubt about the patient’s English proficiency for consultations involving the four Cs: Consent, Complexity, Crisis and Competence.

For more information about accessing TIS National interpreting services for medical professionals read our frequently asked questions and information about the Free Interpreting Service  or  register for TIS National services.

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