Medical malpractice is a significant issue that stems from a range of complex factors. From clinical errors and systemic issues such as staff shortages and administrative challenges, there are many areas in which potentially serious mistakes can be made.

However, one area that may be a cause for concern is the role of language barriers when it comes to malpractice. Can linguistic difficulties in healthcare settings jeopardise patient safety? Is it possible that miscommunication elevates the risk of medical negligence claims being made? Here, we look at the impact of differences in language in medical settings and how caregivers and medical practitioners can address this, in order to ensure they are giving their patients the highest standard of care irrespective of linguistic and cultural barriers.

What is medical malpractice?

Medical malpractice is where a healthcare professional acts negligently, which results in the affected party taking legal action through a medical negligence claim, in order to try and achieve fair compensation. The negligence involved in a malpractice case could be one of a range of things, such as misdiagnosis, incorrect medication given or a missed opportunity to carry out tests.

There may be several reasons for these mistakes being made. However, it is possible that in some cases, these issues would not crop up if communication issues caused by language barriers were removed.

Language barriers in medical settings

Effective communication is vital for ensuring accurate diagnoses, appropriate treatments, and for practitioners to obtain informed consent from their patients. According to a 2019 study published in the Oman Medical Journal, “…several studies have shown that patients who face language barriers have poorer health outcomes compared with patients who speak the local language.In addition: “…patients who face language barriers are also more likely to consume more healthcare services and experience more adverse events.” 

While this study revealed that this is a global concern, a 2024 illustrative case study by NHS Resolution revealed the current prevalence of this issue in the UK. This case study, designed to advise NHS trusts, highlights the instances of medical negligence that have occurred as a result of language barriers to accessing maternity care.

Ultimately, language barriers can lead to miscommunications regarding symptoms, medical history, and treatment plans. These misunderstandings can result in misdiagnoses, medication errors, and failures to adequately inform patients about the risks of procedures, all of which are common grounds for medical malpractice claims.

Reasons for these issues include:

  • Inadequate translation and interpreting services

While the NHS provides translation services, challenges such as availability, quality, and cultural misunderstandings can impact the effectiveness of these services. Often, healthcare settings may rely on family members or untrained staff to translate, which can exacerbate errors and misunderstandings.

This reliance is particularly problematic for marginalised groups, who may find themselves at increased risk of medical errors due to these inadequacies.

  • Cultural differences and health literacy

Understanding the cultural context of patients is crucial in healthcare. Mistranslations related to cultural nuances or low health literacy can lead to non-compliance with treatment regimes, missed appointments, and delays in diagnoses. This can often result in complications that could have been avoided through culturally sensitive communication practices.

  • Systemic issues and resource limitations

Healthcare professionals often face overwhelming workloads and may lack the time or resources to adequately address language barriers. The scarcity of effective communication training for dealing with non-native English speakers can further exacerbate these challenges, increasing the likelihood of medical errors.

Strategies for mitigating risks

To reduce the risks associated with language barriers, it’s essential to invest in comprehensive interpreter services and use advanced remote translation technologies.

Training healthcare staff in cultural competence and developing standard protocols for managing patients with limited English proficiency can significantly enhance communication. Ensuring you have staff in place who are considerate of language barriers can smooth the way for treatment options.

Additionally, collaborating with community organisations can help bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps that exist in healthcare settings.