Employing professional translators for non-English speaking patients in hospital emergency departments (EDs) reduces miscommunication and errors, study results suggest.

There were significantly fewer translation mistakes that posed risks to patients when a trained interpreter (12%) was present compared with no interpreter (20%) or an amateur translator (22%), Glenn Flores, MD, of the University of Texas Medical Center in Dallas, and colleagues reported in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Medication dosing errors were twice as likely with either no interpreter or an amateur translator, the researchers found.

They analyzed a total of 57 situations in which the patient and their family spoke very limited English. Twenty families had a professional interpreter, 27 had a nonprofessional translator (a relative of bilingual staff member) and 10 had no translation help.

Medical errors were least common when patients had an interpreter with 100 or more hours of training, the researchers determined, noting that hours of training rather than years of experience was associated with lower error rates.

A median of 12 errors occurred among translators with more than 100 training hours vs. 33 among those with fewer than 100 training hours. Only 2% of translation mistakes that occurred with translators who had more than 100 training hours had the potential for patient harm compared with 12% of those with less training.

“These findings suggest that requiring at least 100 hours of training for interpreters might have a major impact on reducing interpreter errors and their consequences in health care while improving quality and patient safety,” the researchers concluded.

Flores G et al. Ann Intern Med. 2012; doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2012.01.025