By K. Casey Lion, MD, MPH, acting assistant professor of pediatrics, University of Washington/Seattle Children’s Hospital
I was motivated by the best of intentions. Our patient’s family spoke only Spanish, and as an intern who spoke Spanish fairly well, I fell into interpreting for the team on rounds. Our patient, Antonio,* was a 6-year-old receiving IV antibiotics for osteomyelitis, awaiting normalization of his inflammatory markers. Although occasionally I felt that a professional interpreter would probably do a better job, we never had one available, and I was really happy to be able to help both my team and Antonio’s family to communicate. It was only after he developed slurred speech that we began to really consider the headaches he had been mentioning for over a week. The CT scan confirmed that he had developed a brain abscess, requiring surgical drainage and an even longer hospital stay. While I will never know for sure what part my interpretations played in the delayed diagnosis, what I do know is that we consistently provided Antonio and his family with a lower standard of communication than other families receive, and that similar scenarios are happening every day around the country.
Communication is the most important diagnostic and therapeutic tool we have as physicians, yet it is the one we seem to hold the least sacred, the one we are most likely to compromise in the face of logistical or temporal constraints. As we discuss in our article in the October issue of Academic Medicine, even residents who rate their Spanish language skills as less than proficient routinely use those skills with patients and families. We also found that residents were often inaccurate in assessing their own proficiency.
For other skill-based activities in medicine, we require trainees to demonstrate skill proficiency before they can act unsupervised; so why don’t we require the same for language skills? And more importantly, why are we willing to compromise on communication when we are so uncompromising in most other aspects of clinical care? We would never rely on an untrained colleague to read an echocardiogram because it was too much trouble to track down the cardiologist—so why do we think it’s ok to get by with an untrained interpreter or broken English, just because getting a professional interpreter is inconvenient or slow? We do inconvenient things in the course of providing medical care all the time, when they are the right thing to do. And using professional interpretation is no different.
So how do we change the current state of affairs? As Darcy Thompson and colleagues’ article describes, many residents do not receive any formal training on interpreter use, and that lack of training is associated with low self-efficacy for using interpreters. Since self-efficacy is in turn associated with successful action, implementing formal training during residency may improve resident interpreter use. Testing provider language proficiency, and enforcing policies prohibiting use of non-proficient language skills for clinical care is another important step hospitals and training programs should take. And as individual providers, we must consider not only how our communication decisions impact our patients, but also what we are modelling for our colleagues and trainees, and how that will impact their patients.
We are all responsible for the current culture, in which cutting corners in how we gather and share information with our patients is considered acceptable, or at least inevitable. We need to recognize the absolutely critical role that effective, bidirectional communication plays in the practice of medicine, and start treating it with the respect and vigilance it deserves.
*Name has been changed to protect the patient’s identity.