Prehospital medical providers pride ourselves on creative ways to deal with obstacles in the field. But when it comes to communicating with patients who can't speak English well, too many EMS providers only have one back-up solution:
1. Dispatching EMS takes longer for non-English speakers
The authors of The effect of language barriers on dispatching EMS response looked at 272 calls to 911 that were felt to involve some sort of language barrier (not just Spanish). They showed that, either with or without the use of interpreters, 911 calls take longer to dispatch and are less accurate about the chief complaint and need for ALS.
|ALS call took almost 3 minutes longer to dispatch.|
The authors also found that calls involving a language barrier were far more likely to be downgraded to BLS after ALS was initially dispatched. Unfortunately, they are unable to comment on whether this downgrading was later proven to be appropriate.
2. EMS care is slowed down by language issues
This study isn't quite as recent as the other two, but it points to the next step in prehospital care - how quickly EMS can get to the scene, evaluate and package the patient, and then transport to the hospital.
A 2008 study reported on how often EMS providers reported various causes of delay. Bad weather was the most common reason, but the second-most common cited problem was language. Note that Hazmat and safety are both far less frequently cited than language as a source of delay.
Of course, this only applied to a small number of EMS calls - only about 3.3/1000 calls cited language as a problem.
However, this study was done in Minnesota, a state where only about 8% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, while in Connecticut, this figure is > 18%! Even more locally, > 38% of the Bridgeport population is of Hispanic origin, suggesting this issue might even be more prominent here.
3. Language barriers affect EMS clinical decision-making
In-hospital data has shown that patients with limited English-proficiency are far more likely to get blood tests, imaging, and more invasive procedures. A recent case study shows that this can happen in EMS too, leading to absurd and wasteful decisions.
The authors of Triage in the Tower of Babel: Interpreter Services for Children in the Prehospital Setting report on the case of a infant whose parents spoke only Amharic.
ፖሊስጥራ ጥሪ። (Call 911!)
Evidently, this child, while attempting to walk, fell onto his butt. Frustrated at this outcome, he started crying, but immediately had (in retrospect) a breath-holding spell. A very unfunny game of telephone followed when a non-English/non-Amharic neighbor called 911: EMS was subsequently dispatched for "baby not breathing."
Apparently at least 3 ambulances were dispatched (Tom Bouthillet would approve!), and found a fully recovered, well appearing child. Since they were unable to obtain a clear history, due to the language, they decided to err on the side of caution by treating him as a pediatric trauma.
So what happened when they strapped this kid to the backboard? He cried and promptly had another breath-holding spell! Must have looked something like...
... which must have scared the scat out of everyone. (Breath-holding spells are actually benign, common, and easy to recognize.)
Long story short, the infant received complete packaging, was declared a pediatric trauma code, and directly transported to a trauma center. He received an IV, a femoral blood draw, and 2 CTs of the head. Eventually, an RN of Ethiopian heritage was able to clarify the history, and the child was discharged with no (non-iatrogenic) injuries.
The authors go on to discuss the problem of language barriers in EMS, and draw a few conclusions. Apart from any legal or regulatory requirement, they consider it to be an ethical obligation to provide translation, even for EMS patients. This misdiagnosis and mistriage caused the patient and parents distress, as well as radiation and pain, and perhaps much of this could have been avoided had communication been clearer. Of course, there are legal obligations to provide translation in the hospital, and the authors highlight how the same laws also apply to EMS. Apart from laws and ethics, they also lay out the economic rationale to provide translation, since the over-triage and over-treatment of these patients ends up costing quite a lot of money!
The bottom line
If you can't talk to your patients, your care will be incomplete, delayed, and possibly dangerous. If a foreign language is very common in your community, you should consider ways to tackle that challenge ahead of time.