Failings in ‘language interpretation’ linked to 80 babies coming to harm, investigation finds

Failures in language interpretation in the NHS were linked to about 80 babies coming to harm, with some even dying, according to an investigation.

BBC Radio 4’s File On 4 programme claims “poorly managed” language services in the NHS are leading to abuse, misdiagnosis and in some cases death, with staff turning to Google Translate in the absence of qualified professionals.

A freedom of information request by the BBC asked the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) to review all cases of babies dying or suffering serious brain injuries in the first week of life between 2018 and 2022.

Since the request was made, the HSIB has been reformed as the Health Services Safety Investigations Body, with maternity investigations being carried out by the Maternity and Newborn Safety Investigation (MNSI) programme, hosted by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

The MNSI said 2,607 cases were reviewed from the period, with 80 linked to interpretation or communication problems due to language difficulties.

The File On 4 episode will hear from a man who was unaware his wife was going to the maternity ward to have her labour induced.

She later suffered a fatal bleed after giving birth to their daughter.

Another woman woke up after giving birth to find her womb had been removed.

At the time, hospital staff could not find an interpreter for her and turned to Google Translate in an attempt to let her know she required emergency surgery.

Mike Orlov, executive director of the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, told the BBC that the level of qualifications in the profession varies hugely, making standards “extremely patchy”.

Professor Hassan Shehata, of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told the BBC the service is “failing some of the most vulnerable people in society”.

He added: “Add to that the language barriers, which will further exacerbate the risk with women struggling to access, engage with maternity services and communicate their concerns to healthcare professionals.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “Community language translation and interpretation services are vital for patient safety and local areas who commission these services are responsible for applying the highest quality standards possible.

“NHS England is currently completing a review to identify if and how we can support improvements in the commissioning and delivery of translation services.”

File On 4: Lost In Translation will air on Radio 4 on Tuesday at 8pm.

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