The high cost of cheap translations

The quality of medical information, whether it is written or translated, is of crucial importance says Sheila Owen, Translation Business Development Manager at Medilingua.

There is hardly any sector where the correctness of information is as important as it is in the medical field. Prescribers and users of medicines should never have a problem understanding the information that comes with medicines. The same is true for users of test-kits to confirm pregnancy, and for professional users of hospital equipment, for cardiologists who insert a coronary stent, or for orthopedic surgeons who perform a total hip replacement. If the information is not completely clear, there is a much greater risk of error. When something happens to  a patient, and it can be linked to faulty or unclear product information or instructions, this can be devastating. If people suffer or die, the damages will be huge, not only in terms of money, but also the reputation of a company is at stake, not to mention its stock-market  value.

People don’t usually talk about medical accidents being caused by  poorly written or translated information, and therefore not many cases  are known. However, there are a few examples. In a French hospital a system was used to calculate the level of radiation for each specific patient. The instructions were only available in English. As several users had problems understanding the instructions, one of the radiologists made a French translation. As a result of a small but extremely serious translation error over 450 cancer patients,over a period of 4 years, were not treated  correctly.

They received radiation doses which were at least 20% stronger than  appropriate, and for 7 of the patients who died afterwards their deaths  could be linked to this. Another example took place in Germany, where patients needed painful repeat-operations of a knee replacement. The  surgical instruction in English read that the femoral component was ‘non-modular cemented’. In the German version, the translation ended up as ‘a prosthesis that does not need cement’, and as a result 47 people were injured because their new knee was not implanted in the  correct way.

A final example from the USA, where in many states, pharmacies are obliged to provide patient information leaflets in a number of languages. A research study showed that professional translators were hardly ever used, with pharmacists relying on an automated translation system.

One Spanish customer could not believe his eyes when he read that he  was supposed to take his new blood pressure pills 11 times per day. When he checked with the pharmacy they discovered that the word  ‘once’ as in ‘once a day’ had not been translated by the system, probably because it is already a Spanish word. It means ‘eleven’….

Fortunately, disasters such as these do not occur often, but when they do, they are usually the result of non-professional translation work. In the French example, the person who took care of the translation was a radiologist, not a linguist.

The German error was made by a translator but not a specialised medical translator, and the US example was the result of a poorly functioning automatic translation system, without an experienced medical editor to review the results. What these examples all have in common is that no professional medical translators had been involved. Spending a few hundred euro would have prevented quite a bit of human suffering and extensive costs.

Saving money always seems like a good idea but what was the real cost of these cheap translations? In France and Germany, huge amounts were paid in damages, and the radiologist was even charged with manslaughter. Not involving an experienced medical translator at the  right time can jeopardize the name and reputation of an organization and could potentially mean the difference between life and death.

It may not come as a surprise, and I may be biased, but I would always recommend involving experienced professionals when you need medical translations.