Can Google Help Bridge Language Gaps Between Doctors, Patients?

By on February 27, 2019

Google Translate might be a valuable ally for doctors when they’re treating patients who don’t speak English, new research suggests.

“Google Translate is more accurate than a lot of clinicians believe, and I think it’s definitely more useful than not providing anything at all,” said first author Dr. Elaine Khoong. She’s a primary care research fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We cautiously support its use,” she added in a university news release.

To come to that conclusion, Khoong and her team analyzed 100 sets of emergency discharge instructions translated by Google and found it was 92 percent accurate for Spanish and 81 percent accurate for Chinese.

Of the inaccurate translations, only 2 percent of the Spanish ones and 8 percent of the Chinese ones had the potential to cause significant harm, according to the researchers.

Most of those significant problems were due to grammar or typographical errors in the original written English instructions, which would have been understood by someone who could read English, they explained.

Google Translate did have problems when doctors used colloquial terms, like “skip a meal,” a phrase that Google translated into Chinese as “jump over” a meal. Instructions to “hold the kidney medicine” — meaning to stop taking it — were translated that into Spanish as “keep the medication” and into Chinese as “keep taking” the medication. These were mistakes that could be “life-threatening,” the team said.

Medical jargon also caused problems for Google Translate, as did long, complicated sentences such as, “Please return to the emergency department for worsening abdominal pain, inability to eat or drink due to vomiting, bloody diarrhea, if you pass out or any other concerning symptom.”

Google’s Chinese translation was, “If you pass, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, unable to eat or drink or any other symptoms; come back to the emergency department for treatment.”

While a clinically significant error, this was not life-threatening, according to the researchers.

“It confused the machine because the sentence structure was so complicated,” Khoong explained. “It’s certainly an argument for doctors to check themselves when they are writing instructions. We get used to communicating in these very complicated sentences.”

Google Translate is best used in combination with human interpreters who can decipher the doctor’s verbal instructions for the patient — in person, over the phone or via video — while the doctor shows the patient the written translation on the computer screen or printout, the researchers noted.

This approach would give patients the chance to ask about errors or confusing passages as they are listening and reading.

Doctors should also give their non-English-speaking patients the English version of the written instructions, so English-speaking relatives or friends can compare them to the translated version, the researchers added.

The study was published Feb. 25 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

More information

The Joint Commission offers advice on understanding health professionals.

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