The Tragic Price of Medical Interpreting Errors

Language barriers pose a major challenge when it comes to accessing health care. Limited English proficiency (LEP) patients often struggle to make appointments—let alone describe symptoms or understand recommendations. Medical interpreters can help, but healthcare professionals don’t always provide one due to the cost. Yet failure to do so can result in serious medical mistakes. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at three medical malpractice cases and how to avoid errors like these.


The Willie Ramirez Case


Often referred to as the most expensive medical interpreting error, the failure to understand one word changed the life of Willie Ramirez. In 1980, the 18-year-old arrived at a South Florida hospital in a comatose state. His Spanish-speaking mother explained that he was “intoxicado”—which meant suffering from food poisoning.


Doctors mistakenly believed that meant he overdosed on drugs or alcohol. But Willie had actually suffered from a brain hemorrhage and was left quadriplegic as a result. Had a neurosurgeon been called immediately, he could have avoided this fate. He won a $71 million settlement as a result.


This case highlights just one reason why family members don’t make the best interpreters. Had doctors connected with a medical interpreter who understood Spanish, Willie could have avoided paralysis.


The Tran Family Case


A nine-year-old girl in California arrived at the hospital with what seemed to be a serious case of the stomach flu. Her parents only spoke Vietnamese, yet the hospital failed to request an interpreter. Instead, the girl and her 16-year-old brother tried to interpret. A doctor sent the family home with a prescription and instructions in English. The girl later had a reaction to the drug and died of a heart attack. The doctor and the hospital settled the malpractice claim for $200,000.


As this case shows, children should never be tasked with interpreting—especially for their parents. They not only lack the proper vocabulary, but the maturity level to fulfill the role.

A medical interpreter could have given the parents proper instructions, and the girl likely would have lived.


The Teresa Tarry Case


A British citizen living in Spain, Teresa Tarry underwent an unnecessary double mastectomy because of a translation error in her medical records. A doctor found a benign lump during an exam, and wrongly believed that she had a family history of breast cancer. Teresa, who doesn’t speak fluent Spanish, claimed she was never offered an interpreter. She sued the hospital for €600,000.


As this case shows, even patients who speak the language may need assistance. An interpreter could have clarified Teresa’s family history, and she would have avoided unnecessary surgery.


Connecting with a Remote Interpreting  


Of course, waiting for an onsite interpreter isn’t always an option. Fortunately, over-the-phone (OPI) and video remote interpreting (VRI) make it possible to connect with one almost anywhere. And here’s where BoostCare Telehealth comes in. This easy-to-use, HIPPA-compliant platform let’s you connect with interpreters who speak over 200 languages in minutes!

It’s a fast, affordable alternative to onsite interpreting.


Want to learn more about how BoostCare can improve your practice? Contact us today to start your free trial!