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Another view on medical communication

Medical Translation Sacrifices Accuracy for Understanding — In health facilities and the pharmaceutical industry, this has consequences for patients

by Arthur Lazarus, MD, MBA December 17, 2021

The year was 1980. I was a first-year resident working on a psychiatric inpatient unit in the City of Brotherly Love. A family had just dropped off a psychotic patient who only spoke Greek. How did we know she was psychotic? The family reported the patient had been acting bizarrely and was responding to hallucinations. However, they left before I could obtain a complete history. We did not have Greek translators on staff. So, I did the next best thing. I ran outside to the corner hot dog vendor and enlisted his services (countless pushcart vendors in Philadelphia are Greek). He confirmed the patient had "strange ideas" and was "crazy" even by his standards. Mind you, this was before HIPAA was enacted, and we were fast and loose with privacy issues. In my era, it was common to depend on family members or family friends for translation. However, very few relatives had the knowledge to translate medical terminology. Who knows what may have been missed in the examination or delivery of instructions? Unless a close family member or invited friend was a medical professional, a medical translator was necessary. Fast forward to today. Federal law requires that any organization receiving federal financial assistance, including Medicare, Medicaid, and federal reimbursements, must provide equal care to every patient. This includes serving customers who don't speak English, have low proficiency, or are hearing impaired. Without translation, patients would not be able to understand the most basic elements of treatment including their diagnoses, medication effects, referrals, and follow-up appointments. Conveying medical information to non-English speaking patients without proper translation has been associated with medical errorsopens in a new tab or window and poor outcomesopens in a new tab or window. Given that more than 25 million peopleopens in a new tab or window in the U.S. have limited comfort with English as their primary language, the language and culture of minorities in healthcare settings need to be prioritized and addressed in order to reduce disparities. However, translators vary in their ability to translate -- not just the words, but the real meaning of the medical communication. Even with the best translators, doctors are seldom fully satisfied with the quality of the communication when seeing patients who do not speak English. And vice versa, patients are frequently unhappy when they are left to digest a very large volume of information received second-hand in a short time span, putting them at risk of being ill-informed of care processesopens in a new tab or window. My experience on the inpatient psych unit was a portent of problems when I left practice for the pharmaceutical industry. One of my first assignments was to oversee the translation of a drug's FDA-approved "label" from English to Spanish. It was a labor-intensive task, involving an outside translator and an internal team comprising myself, a lawyer, a regulatory specialist, a registered pharmacist, and a marketing team representative. With everyone's input, the label was translated from English to Spanish. Then, a second translator not involved in the original work translated the label from Spanish to English -- the so-called "back translation." The original label in English was compared word-for-word with the English version generated through the back translation. The concordance was around 85%, far from perfect, but not unexpected because of the natural differences in language. The medical translators faced several challenges. Some of these included dealing with unique medical terminology, equivalence of medical words and phrases, and certain characteristics of the English language causing variations in semantics and syntax, as well as other nuances and idiosyncrasiesopens in a new tab or window. Because the drug label is ostensibly written for prescribers rather than patients, its translation is considered an expert-to-expert communication in which accuracy is generally easier to achieve compared with a medical translation between an expert and lay reader. The latter communication -- such as between a doctor and patient or drug or medical device manufacturer and consumer -- necessarily entails the use of less complex and precise language. Scientific and medical communication must be "dumbed down" for consumers for easy readability and comprehension. As a result, fact sheets, informed consent forms for clinical trials, and various types of consumer advertising can become biased or misleading because precision and accuracy are sacrificed for understanding. Toward the end of my pharmaceutical career, I developed a special expertise reviewing advertising and promotion for the public. My job was to ensure that the drug information was truthful, balancedopens in a new tab or window, and accurately communicated. But how do you communicate technical terms, complex clinical data, genetic concepts, and cryptic yet potentially lethal side effects to consumers without losing some accuracy? Can the information be broken down so that an eighth-grader could comprehend it (which is typically recommended for materials intended for the general publicopens in a new tab or window)? It can't! The main purpose of advertising drugs to consumers is to sell a product; it is not to empower patients or educate the public. Not only does the language of drug ads make that clear, so does the tone -- branded drug ads are increasingly using popular rock songsopens in a new tab or window to accompany their treatment messages. The feel-good vibe is a powerful way to aid drug recall and reach aging baby boomers and other target audiences. The fact that television commercials are able to stuff so much music and verbiage (including subtitles) into a 60-second spot makes comprehension of the advertisement very difficult. The music alone interferes with comprehension and detracts fromopens in a new tab or window the medications' side effects and risks. Studies have shown there are clear advantagesopens in a new tab or window to direct-to-consumer drug advertising. But as with clinical care, much of the advertising has been lost in translation.

Arthur Lazarus, MD, MBA, is a member of the Physician Leadership Journal editorial board, a 2021-2022 Doximity Luminary Fellow, and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University in Philadelphia.


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