Language barriers can increase med error risk

Language barriers slow down access to healthcare, can compromise the quality of care, and might increase the risk of harmful medical events among patients with limited English proficiency (LEP), according to data and research studies released recently by the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority in Harrisburg.

Events reported to the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority from June 2004 through May 2010 were reviewed to determine what types of events most frequently affect patients with LEP. Falls, errors related to a surgical procedure, and medication errors were the top three types of events reported for LEP patients during this time frame. (For the full report, go to http://patientsafetyauthority.org and search for "Managing patients with limited English proficiency.")

Of the 232 event reports, 114 (49%) involved patient falls, 62 (27%) involved errors or complications related to a surgical procedure, and 14 (6%) involved medication errors or adverse drug reactions. One hundred nine reports (47%) were for LEP patients over age 65. Of the 232 reports, 128 (55%) reports specifically mentioned the primary language spoken, whereas the remaining reports (104) did not. Where the language was specifically documented, Spanish was most frequently mentioned.

The report cites the top three events that affected LEP patients based on the reported events:

• falls among LEP patients were often due to the patient not understanding or following instructions;

• reports of errors or complications related to a surgical procedure showed problems with obtaining consent or locating an interpreter before the procedure, causing delays;

• medication errors or adverse drug reactions due to misinterpretation of instructions.