Medical Document Translation: Advantages and Disadvantages

Dynamic Language | August 1, 2019

Low-cost travel and advances in technology have allowed people to seek medical care and treatment in other countries. Healthcare professionals and patients rely on translated medical documents to communicate with each other.

Medical Translation


Medical translation is a highly specialized field due to the technical and sensitive nature of documents. It is important, whether it is for patients seeking treatment abroad, needing care while on holiday, or even immigrants new to a country.

Healthcare professionals need well-translated documents to treat patients who speak foreign languages. The common documents that need translation are medical histories, consent forms required for medical procedures, post-discharge instructions, prescription, and medical device labels, drug usage information, patient and doctor manuals, etc.

Medical practitioners need to review and understand medical histories. During treatment, patients or bystanders may need to sign many documents. These documents should be translated so that they understand what they are signing. Similarly, in some legal proceedings, medical records that are allowed as evidence will be accepted only if they are translated by a professional.

Translation helps medical practitioners to have meaningful interactions with international colleagues and patients to disseminate knowledge and discuss new discoveries. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies need to translate all content, such as manufacturing processes and process controls, clinical trials and reports, pharmacological studies, specifications, instructions for use, and labels when selling their products internationally.

Advantages of Medical Document Translation


Information: Healthcare providers will be better informed about their patients’ health if they have access to translated medical documents. Patients can point out their symptoms and will be more knowledgeable about the medical procedure they may need to undergo.

Stress relief: Medical practitioners can avoid a lot of tension and guesswork spent in trying to gauge patient condition or deciphering medical records in foreign languages. Patients can understand documents, which helps make them feel comfortable and secure.

Fewer errors: Translation of healthcare documents helps avoid errors or confusion regarding vital information, such as patient allergies or medicine dosage. This means fewer mistakes and happier patients.

Accurate service: Many medical institutions use bilingual medical practitioners or family members as translators when providing medical services. However, this is not always safe, as bilinguals may translate medical terms incorrectly or misinterpret them. Professionally translated medical documents contain all relevant information in the correct terminology, thus, conveying the correct message.

Overall, medical document translation helps avoid wrong diagnoses; unexpected side effects of treatments; misuse of medical devices; confusion about signing forms; and even death, when doctors misunderstand what is written in foreign languages.

Disadvantages of Medical Document Translation


The following challenges make mere bilingual capabilities and general language expertise quite inadequate in translating medical documents.

  • Medical documents contain specialized terms and new concepts that may not have equivalents in the target language. They may also refer to several sub-disciplines of medical science and contain jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms specific to the medical field.
  • Although diseases and human anatomy are the same worldwide, there might be regional differences in how they are referred to and treated. Depending on various contexts, different words can be used to refer to the same condition. While some languages have only one word for all such instances, other languages have two or more words.
  • The comprehension level of the audience the text is intended for also matters. For example, a doctor would understand what edema is, whereas a patient or non-professional may know it only as swelling.
  • Even small mistakes can cause serious problems, including lawsuits, financial claims, or even health or life risks. In Germany, 47 patients underwent total knee replacement arthroplasties in 2006-2007. Some components, designed for cemented use only, were implanted in the patients in a non-cemented fashion. The component package label that said ‘non-modular cemented’ was mistakenly translated as ‘non-cemented’ or ‘without cement’ by the hospital employees.

The disadvantage of medical translation is that only professional translators can ensure high accuracy. However, professional translation inevitably means an expense.

When it comes to a patient’s health and well-being the expense is a non-starter because accurate translation of health-related documents would mean all patients, regardless of the language they speak, would receive the best treatment.

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