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The Cost of Poor Communication: Medical Malpractice Claims

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In healthcare, the foremost component of high-quality care is patient safety.

By all rights, healthcare is in place to help patients, and the fact that patients seek care should never mean they are inadvertently harmed due to malpractice. Unfortunately, patient safety is at risk due to inadvertent injury when it comes to treating patients with limited-English proficiency (LEP). 

While to err is human, most medical errors that cause an adverse event and often lead to a malpractice claim can be avoided. Disparities in the treatment provided to underrepresented groups are well documented. However, poor communication with LEP patients exacerbates existing disparities to a higher degree. Below is a closer look at how poor communication directly contributes to the high cost of medical malpractice claims. 

Limited-English Proficiency & Patient Safety: A Direct Correlation 

Research indicates that roughly 25 million individuals in the United States speak English "less than very well." This means that over 8% of the population could be at risk when it comes to patient safety simply because language barriers get in the way of proper treatment. 

According to the Joint Commission's Sentinel Event Database, problems with communication are the most prevalent underlying cause of adverse events during treatment. This means that most threats to patient safety come about because LEP patients don't have access to language services, such as qualified medical interpreters or document translation. 

Lacking communication has a number of negative outcomes for LEP patients. These patients are more likely to: 

Managing Risk & Assessing Cost Drivers 

Managing risk due to communication barriers is all about determining what areas need to be improved to ensure patient safety among LEP patients. In a recent study of medical malpractice claims in four states, 2.5% (35) of claims were directly tied to language barriers. These claims showed several areas of failure, including: 

  • 32 claims involved failure to use competent interpreters 
  • 12 claims involved failure to ensure important documents were translated 
  • Nearly all 35 claims showed a failure to document or recognize the patient needed an interpreter 

Providers must work to identify what areas leave them liable for malpractice claims because they did not take the appropriate steps during treatment to ensure proper communication or achieve health equity. This should involve language data collection to better gauge where language support services are needed. 

Causes of Adverse Events 

The underlying cause of adverse medical events can vary depending on the situation. However, with LEP patients, the underlying causes tend to be easier to point out than with patients that are English proficient. There are three common causes of medical errors when it comes to the treatment and care of culturally diverse patients, including: 

  • Using nonqualified interpreters, including family or nonqualified staff members 
  • The provider relies on basic language skills just to get by when communicating with LEP patients 
  • Cultural traditions and beliefs that interfere with the delivery of care

Ways to Improve

Several steps can improve patient safety for LEP patients. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality recommends: 

  • Adjusting processes to achieve cultural competence in the organization 
  • Improving systems to better pinpoint errors or problems when providing care to LEP patients 
  • Making sure errors when treating LEP patients are adequately reported 
  • Closely monitoring LEP patient safety and developing strategies to improve in the future 
  • Working to address root causes of medical errors with LEP patients, such as implementing better language support  

Improving Patient Safety With Language Support

In the end, the costs of lacking communication and language support are twofold. LEP patients pay the highest price, sometimes even with their lives. Care providers face the overwhelming costs associated with medical malpractice. Implementing a well-designed language support plan for your healthcare organization makes all the difference. Reach out to GLOBO to schedule a demo to see just how language support can help you manage the risks. 

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