What Is Medical Translation and How to Perform It

Chidinma Egwuogu
14 Dec 2023

8 min. read


Every day, a myriad of medical documents are produced globally, carrying vital information for healthcare providers and patients alike. However, as these documents traverse borders, they encounter a significant barrier: language.

This is where medical translation comes in.

This guide provides a comprehensive answer to the question “what is medical translation?” and offers strategies for navigating the process efficiently.

Pro tip: Using a translation management system, like Centus, can help you maintain accuracy and consistency in your medical translations. Learn more.

What is medical translation?

Medical translation is the translation of documents used in medical settings and for medical purposes. These medical documents include patient records, clinical research trials, medical reports, drug information, and healthcare manuals, among others. What is medical translation? Medical translation requires a deep understanding of the medical field, including terminology, procedures, and regulatory requirements.

Medical translation process

Translating words from one language to another is only a small part of the medical translation process.

To ensure accuracy and context preservation, the medical translation process requires the following stages:

  1. Understanding the source document: The first step starts with a thorough examination of the source document to understand its context and purpose.
  2. Translation: The text is translated by a linguist with an exhaustive grasp of medical terminology and fluency in both the source and target languages. This stage may include neural machine translation with machine translation post-editing.
  3. Review and proofreading: The translated document is subjected to a rigorous review for accuracy and consistency.
  4. Quality assurance: The final step is a comprehensive quality check to ensure the translation meets the highest standards of accuracy and readability. Learn more.

Why is medical translation important?

Translations of medical materials are crucial because they directly impact patient treatment, medical research, and global health.

With accurate translations, patients can share their medical history with overseas professionals and pharmaceutical companies can globalize their products. Thus, more people can have access to life-saving healthcare.

Accurate medical translations also help companies avoid the legal consequences of poorly translated labels and instruction manuals for medical devices.

When do you need medical translation?

Medical translation is required in a range of scenarios:

  1. International patient services: Medical tourism, a burgeoning industry with a market value estimated to reach $97.9 billion by 2030, typically involves patients who speak a language other than that of their healthcare professionals. When patients go overseas for medical treatment or when immigrants seek healthcare in their new country, correct translations of medical data, diagnoses, and treatment plans are critical to ensuring appropriate care.
  2. Clinical trials: Clinical trials often involve participants from various parts of the world. To make sure that participants properly comprehend the processes and dangers involved in the studies, all related paperwork, including permission forms, patient surveys, and study protocols, must be translated.
  3. Medical device manufacturing: Companies that manufacture medical devices must accurately translate device manuals and instructions to comply with regulatory requirements and ensure safe usage.
  4. Pharmaceutical companies: International pharmaceutical companies must translate medical documents, including drug composition, usage instructions, and side effects.
  5. Healthcare providers: Hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities may need to offer translated health information, discharge instructions, and patient rights documentation in several languages. The translations enable efficient patient communication and compliance with health regulations.
  6. Medical research and education: The translation of research papers, academic articles, and instructional materials brings medical research information to a broader audience.
  7. Public health communication: In times of a public health crisis, it is critical to correctly interpret public health recommendations to reach and safeguard people.

In essence, accurate medical translation can mean the difference between life and death.

Documents that require medical translation

Medical translation is required for a wide range of medical texts. The most common types of such documents are listed below:

  1. Medical reports: This type of document includes diagnostic reports, treatment summaries, or discharge summaries. For example, a patient from Italy might need their medical reports translated into English for treatment in the US.
  2. Prescriptions: When people seek medical care overseas, local pharmacists require translated prescriptions to select the appropriate medication.
  3. Lab results: These results are essential for identifying and treating a variety of medical conditions. They should be precisely translated to provide quality treatment.
  4. Academic reports and medical journals: Scholars and researchers often need their work translated for international publications or global conferences.
  5. Patient records: Accurate patient record translation is essential for continuity of care when a patient is receiving treatment abroad.
  6. Pharmaceutical documents: Pharmaceutical firms require accurate translations of their documentation for international clinical trials, regulatory purposes, or marketing.
  7. Medical device manuals: User guides for medical equipment must be appropriately translated to ensure safe and correct use.

Common medical translation challenges

Medical translation poses multiple pitfalls and hurdles you’ll need to surmount, like understanding medical terms, respecting privacy rules, and more. In this section, we're going to talk about these problems and how to overcome them.

Specialized fields and disciplines

specialized translation fields From neurology to cardiology, there are many different medical specialties, each with its own terminology and practices. A general translator might fail to grasp the nuances of specific disciplines, leading to inaccuracies and even dire consequences.

For instance, a 22-year-old man has received a $71 million payout after claiming that paramedics, physicians, and emergency department employees at a South Florida hospital had misdiagnosed a brain clot.

Solution: Use translators with subject-matter expertise in the medical field you wish to translate into. This could mean hiring translators who have received medical training or have substantial experience translating for a particular medical field in the chosen language.

Knowledge of Latin

Latin book Medical terminology heavily relies on Latin, a language not widely spoken today. Without Latin language proficiency, a medical translator could find it difficult to appropriately translate medical jargon.

Solution: Pick translators with a sound understanding of Latin to enhance the accuracy of your medical translations. Make sure they complete regular training and refresher courses.

Cultural differences and localization

diverse people holding handsn Medical practices and terminology can vary greatly based on cultural contexts. For instance, the term “drugs” in Nigeria typically refers to medication, not narcotics.

Cultural differences can cause miscommunication, which has been found to contribute to 80% of severe medical errors.

Solution: Localize translations to align with the cultural norms and language of the target audience. This necessitates a deep understanding of the target population's culture, healthcare practices, and healthcare system.

Keeping up with medical developments

medical book Medical science is continually expanding, with new terms, treatments, and procedures appearing on a regular basis. By some estimates, medical knowledge doubles every 73 days.

A medical translator who fails to stay updated risks producing outdated or incorrect translations.

Solution: Regular professional development and training can help your medical translator stay abreast of the latest medical advancements. This includes subscriptions to medical journals, seminar attendance, and participation in online forums.

Medical privacy and data security

secured data Medical interpreters and translators often deal with sensitive patient information. They must comply with stringent confidentiality and data security standards to avoid breaches that are constantly on the rise. According to the HIPAA Journal, 5,150 healthcare data hacks were reported in the last 13 years.

Non-compliance with security standards can lead to severe legal repercussions and loss of trust.

Solution: Translators and translation agencies must ensure they adhere to global data security standards like ISO 27001 and The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This includes establishing stringent data security measures such as secure file transfers, encrypted storage, strict access restrictions, security audits, and employee training.

To preserve the protection of health information, the Federal HIPAA Security Regulation mandates health service providers to protect electronic health records (EHR) with appropriate physical and technical safeguards.

A breach of more than 500 records must be reported, whether caused by a hacking attack, unintentional exposure, lost or stolen equipment, or illegal internal access.

Regulatory compliance in different countries

regulatory compliance Each country has its own regulations for medical documents, and non-compliance can result in legal issues, delays in product approvals, and potential loss of market access. For instance, the European Union’s Medical Device Regulation (MDR) demands specific linguistic and content requirements for medical device documentation.

Solution: Your medical translator must be familiar with the regulatory standards of the target country. This can be achieved by working with local regulatory experts or using resources like the U.S. FDA’s guidance documents.

The ethical duty of accurate translation

translation errors Medical translators bear significant ethical responsibility. Errors in translation can lead to harmful or even life-threatening outcomes for patients.

How do you handle the need to translate swiftly with the ethical responsibility of accurate translations?

Solution: Use experts bearing a medical translator certification and perform multiple rounds of proofreading and editing.

Limitations and risks of using technology

the use of technology While technology has greatly benefited the field of medical translation, it also carries risks for providers offering medical translation services and their clients alike.

For example, machine translation tools might lack the context sensitivity to translate medical texts, leading to potential misinterpretation. A study published in the Association for Computing Machinery highlighted the vast risk of errors in machine-translated health information.

Solution: It’s crucial to use technology judiciously without over-reliance on machine translation for complex medical texts. Combining technology with human expertise can yield the best results. For instance, using translation memory tools can increase efficiency, but the final translations should always be checked by a medical translator for accuracy.

How to overcome medical translation challenges

centus dashboard Centus offers a comprehensive solution to many of the medical translation challenges listed above.

Being a professional TMS, Centus has features like terminology management, glossaries, and memories to ensure consistency and accuracy of terms. It also provides robust security features for handling sensitive patient information, maintaining medical confidentiality, and ensuring data security.

Centus also enables seamless collaboration between your translation, legal, marketing, and design teams, thereby increasing their productivity and shortening project timelines.

Centus’ rigorous quality control measures can help you catch inconsistencies and inaccuracies, maintaining your ethical responsibility of accurate translation.

By integrating Centus into your medical translation process, you can effectively overcome these challenges and ensure accurate, secure, and affordable translations. Learn more.

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