A Bad Medical Translation Has Consequences

Burmese-Speaking Patient Lost in Translation

Accurate and professional medical interpreting services save lives. A poor medical translation, on the other hand, can destroy a life. In Zaw v. Birusingh, Plaintiff Zaw Zaw is a native of Burma, and his first language is Burmese. He moved to the U.S. in 2015. At some point Mr. Zaw went to his primary care physician and complained about having trouble urinating. His doctor concluded that a circumcision would resolve that issue for Mr. Zaw.

Accordingly, Mr. Zaw was referred to a urologist at an Iowa Clinic where he saw a specialist to undergo a circumcision, but what followed can only be described as a series of very unfortunate events.

A Botched Translation and a Botched Procedure

The Clinic hired a Burmese medical interpreter through a translation agency for the initial consultation because of Mr. Zaw’s language limitations. The urologist’s notes from the appointment stated that this was a vasectomy consultation and that Mr. Zaw and his wife, who have three children, had expressed a desire to not have any more children. Subsequently Mr. Zaw and the Burmese interpreter were provided with an informed consent form wherein he consented to undergo the vasectomy. The ICF also included a medical interpreter’s statement wherein the Burmese interpreter stated that he had translated the informed consent form from English to Burmese. Thereafter, the consent form was signed by both Mr. Zaw and the Burmese interpreter.

A second, different, Burmese interpreter was present for Mr. Zaw’s second appointment during which the urologist performed a vasectomy on Mr. Zaw, instead of a circumcision. At that appointment, Mr. Zaw signed yet another consent form wherein he agreed to undergo a vasectomy.  Understandably, upon finding out what had actually transpired, Mr. Zaw became very upset.

He then brought a suit against the clinic and the urologist alleging negligence. The clinic then impleaded the translation service company alleging that if the urologist was found to be negligent, then they would have a cause of action against the Burmese interpreters. The case eventually ended up in front of a jury, and the issue they had to resolve was whether the doctor was negligent in his communication with Mr. Zaw or in failing to obtain informed consent from him.

Ultimately the jury awarded Mr. Zaw $500,000 for past loss of bodily function; $250,000 for future loss of bodily function; $1,000,000 for past physical and mental pain and suffering; and $250,000 for future physical and mental pain and suffering.

Anatomy of the Bad Medical Translation

So where did it go so wrong? The trial testimony revealed the mishap. The Burmese interpreter from Mr. Zaw’s first appointment with the urologist testified that he did not know what the words “vasectomy” or “sterilization” meant. The Burmese interpreter from the second appointment testified that the appointment “was fast” and denied that the attending nurse or the specialist even talked about the procedure that was about to take place. He only remembered the doctor saying that Mr. Zaw was “going to get injection or something like that.” The second Burmese interpreter denied ever seeing any sort of consent form. Mr. Zaw testified that during his first appointment the Burmese interpreter never translated the consent form for him, while, according to the consent form, Mr. Zaw was consenting to undergo the vasectomy/sterilization. Therefore, he had no idea that he was consenting to a vasectomy. He also stated that he was given a brochure which was never translated to him by the Burmese interpreter. The brochure was, notably, on vasectomy. Mr. Zaw also testified that he did not sign the second consent form until after the procedure, and he was told by the second Burmese interpreter that the form was not important and that he should just sign it. He also testified that the Burmese interpreter did not translate everything the doctor was saying to him.

Use Trained Medical Interpreters to Avoid Problems

Not surprisingly, the case ended up in the Iowa Court of Appeals which ordered a new trial on somewhat technical grounds. However, the harm has been done to Mr. Zaw, as he underwent a vasectomy which he never wanted. Notably, Mr. Zaw’s wife who also testified at the trial, described him as being very sad because of what had transpired.  Needless to say, this issue could have been avoided with the use of qualified and properly trained English-Burmese medical interpreters.

Get in touch with All Language Alliance, Inc. to request professional on-site medical interpreters who are fluent in Burmese, Oromo, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Korean, Amharic, Russian, Spanish, Dinka, Arabic, Nyanja, and other exotic, rare and common foreign languages, and to obtain multilingual ICF translation services by competent medical translators.

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