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'The use of online translation machines in healthcare settings may involve certain risks'

Researcher and lecturer Susana Valdez investigates how migrants make use of online translation technology in medical situations. Her research suggests that they often encounter obstacles when using machine translation in these settings. Potential problems include a lack of understanding or trust.

Say you are not sufficiently familiar with the Dutch language and need to go to the doctor. Or maybe you have received a letter from the RIVM, the Dutch Institute for Public Health. In these situations, the easiest and quickest solution seems to be to use online translation technology such as Google Translate or DeepL. However, Susana Valdez, who teaches and researches the subject at the Leiden University Center for Linguistics (LUCL), also points out the potential risks of using this type of technology in healthcare settings.

Privacy implications and clarity

If you receive a letter from your doctor in a language that you do not understand, it seems obvious to have it translated by a translation machine. ‘But,’ warns Valdez, ‘you should also consider the possible privacy implications associated with using these tools. Your user data and other information, such as your address, which is translated by the online translation engine, might be stored in various ways.’

Privacy implications are not the only concerns when it comes to using machine translation in healthcare settings. Take, for instance, the use of online translation technology when completing a health questionnaire. The patient uses it to understand and answer the questions and the doctor subsequently makes decisions based on these answers. This might result in incorrect translations that may even have consequences for the health of the patient.

‘It is important to understand that online machine translation cannot help explain medical terms or clarify potential misinterpretations that arise, for example, from cultural differences,’ says Valdez. ‘An online translation machine creates a text without any further explanations or clarifications. As a result patients who use these online translation machines might not fully understand their diagnosis.’

The only available option

‘In certain situations, using machine translations is the only option available to migrants,’ Valdez says. Fortunately, the problems relating to  language barriers in the medical field is receiving an increasing amount of attention in the Netherlands.

Since the COVID epidemic, for example, the RIVM website has been available in English: the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. The website also contains brochures in different languages about the national vaccination program for children. Valdez thinks this a good starting point. ‘Access to health information is also about translating and adapting public health information for everyone.’

Incidentally, Valdez does not think that translation machines will go away any time soon or that they shouldn’t be used in healthcare settings. After all, it will always be a quick and easy way to overcome language barriers: ‘But we must understand that translation machines have limitations and come with risks.’

More awareness needed

After she has completed her research, Valdez wants to focus on providing training for migrants and medical professionals on how to deal with translation machines. ‘It is important that people understand the risks and limitations of automated translations.  By asking the doctor additional questions, they can try to avoid some of these risks. For example, they can ask for confirmation that they have understood the conversation correctly.’ Valdez continues: ‘Doctors, in turn, can reformulate questions or ask the patient to repeat explanations back to them to make sure both parties truly understand each other.'

The co-authors of this study are Ana Guerberof-Arenas (Groningen University) and Kars Ligtenberg (LUCL). This research was funded by LUCDH.

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