Medical Document Translation

Medical Document Translation

5 Medical Document Translation Challenges & How to Overcome Them

Imagine undergoing knee replacement surgery twice for no reason but a tiny translation mistake.

This was the case in 2006-2007 in Germany, when a translation error in the femoral component package label of a knee prosthesis led to 47 failed knee replacement surgeries, as reported by BioMed Central BMC. 

The mistranslation of the original phrase “non-modular cemented prostheses” as “none-cemented prosthetics” instead of “cemented” resulted in the implantation of the wrong type of knee prosthesis, causing immense suffering for the patients involved. 

You might now be wondering why medical history is filled to the brim with such cases and why delivering accurate medical translations is so challenging. 

In this article, we will address all of your questions, walking you through a list of shocking challenges that will completely change the way you think about medical document translation. But first of all, let us answer a crucial question: why translating medical documents might even be important. 

Let’s dive in.

Table of Contents

What is Medical Document Translation And Why Is It Required?

Medical translation stands as one of the most highly-demanded services within the life science industry. It covers a wide spectrum of specialties, including clinical trial translation, medical device translation, and healthcare translation. 

Medical document translation refers to the translation of documentation used by medical and healthcare organizations, patients, and other medical consumers, including the following: 


What is Medical Document Translation And Why Is It Required?
  • Medication Packaging
  • Medical Records
  • Medication Instructions
  • Prescription Labels
  • Medical Form Translation
  • Consultation Transcripts
  • Medical Reports
  • Device Packaging
  • Device Documentation
  • Patient Information Forms
  • Consent Forms

Incorporating medical document translation in healthcare services is not just a privilege; it’s an obligation since it is required by language access laws in many countries worldwide. 

Healthcare practitioners and medical service providers are legally required to provide language services for patients with limited English proficiency (LEP).

In the United States, for instance, medical service providers must adhere to the requirements of The Affordable Care Act (ACA) and The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). 

There are many reasons behind the integration of medical translation into the medical sector, ranging from improving patient health and satisfaction to protecting healthcare organizations from legal and financial risks. 

Here is a quick glimpse at some of them. 

3 Key Reasons Why Medical Document Translation Is Necessary

What is Medical Document Translation And Why Is It Required?
  • Influences Diagnosis and Treatment 

Doctors base their diagnosis on the information extracted from the patient’s physical exam and history. Even a minor detail in a medical record can completely alter a diagnosis and treatment plan, for better or for worse.

Accurate medical document translation allows doctors easy access to patients’ medical histories, enabling more informed decisions if recorded and translated accurately. 


Think about being in a foreign country seeking medical services. How can you expect a proper diagnosis and treatment if your previous medical records are not well-translated into the language of that country?

The same goes for non-native-speaking doctors; understanding their patients’ history in their native language is crucial to diagnosing their patients and providing them with proper treatment. 


Such a proper treatment Teresa Tarry was deprived of it because of a translation mix-up in her medical history. As reported by Mail Online, the British patient Teresa Terry had an unnecessary double mastectomy in Spain when Spanish physicians thought that her mother and sister had a history of cancer, which was not true. She was misdiagnosed and treated accordingly because of a translation error that left her devastated.

  • Increases Patient Satisfaction

Translating medical documents boosts patient satisfaction. It ensures that healthcare is inclusive for all, no matter what language they speak, preserving the rights of ethnic minorities and immigrants to receive equal healthcare services. 


A review of studies on the implications of language barriers in healthcare found that linguistic obstacles significantly reduce both patients’ and healthcare providers’ satisfaction.

On the other hand,  incorporating translation has been shown to increase the satisfaction of both medical providers and patients by 92%. 

  • Protects Medical Organizations Against Legal And Financial Risks

Denying patients with limited English proficiency access to quality language services can lead to terrible consequences for patients’ health, and in some cases, even fatal outcomes.

Consequently, it exposes healthcare organizations to legal and financial risks. And Implementing high-quality medical document translation protects medical organizations and healthcare providers against such risks.  

In the previously mentioned case of a double mastectomy, Teresa Tarry sued the hospital and sought €600,000 in compensation for negligence. The hospital could have avoided the legal escalation and saved Terry’s misery had they provided an accurate translation of her medical history.  

5 Common Challenges of Medical Document Translation

1. The High Stakes of Medical Translation Errors

Errors in medical translation can have severe medical and legal consequences, which are catastrophic for patients and misleading for physicians.

Such mistakes can destroy lives, damage companies, and jeopardize the reputation of many healthcare providers. Need proof? The French hospital case will shock you. 

As reported by Générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS), 24 patients with prostate cancer received an overdose of radiation in the Jean Monnet General Hospital because of a translation error. Tragically, seven patients lost their lives and the rest suffered severe radiation complications.The root cause of this error lay in the software determining radiation doses, which was not localized, and the operation manual was not translated into French by the US medical device manufacturer. The hospital relied on a bilingual staff member for translation, leading to this fatal translation mistake.

The hospital accordingly faced prosecution and numerous legal complications.

2. Meeting The Regulatory Requirements Of The Medical Industry

Complying with regulatory requirements is another challenge that healthcare providers, drug developers, and even medical device manufacturers face. 

The medical industry is strictly regulated by a set of local, national, and international laws, with each country governed by a regulatory body that has its own standards. 

In the context of translation of medical documents, regulations are meant to ensure patient’s safety, privacy, and overall satisfaction. To make sure this is achieved, they govern the quality of medical document translation, the translation process itself, and the circulation of medical documents.

That’s why translators must be well-versed in dealing with global regulatory requirements and stay constantly updated with the recent changes in such regulations. 


Some of the regulatory bodies that govern medical document translations, covering different specialties, include:

  • The European Medicines Agency (EMA)
  • The World Health Organization (WHO)
  • Medical Devices Directive (MDD)
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • The International Conference on Harmonization (ICH)
  • The Vitro Diagnostics Medical Devices Regulation (IVDR)
  • Local Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)
  • The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) 

Not following the regulations and laws that govern the medical industry exposes healthcare providers and businesses operating in the industry to legal, ethical, and professional complications, with potentially disastrous consequences. 

3. Meeting Different Specializations

The medical industry is highly specialized and sensitive. If you’re in need of medical document translation, entrusting your projects with different specializations to an agency that lacks expertise in those specific fields can lead to terrible legal and financial consequences.

You might not believe it, but a translator specialized in cardiology cannot and should not handle medical documents related to hematology, as these are distinct areas of expertise.

This poses a challenge for translation agencies, as they must carefully vet their translators’ expertise and fields of specialization. Likewise, healthcare providers must diligently choose the translation agency to partner with to avoid any complications.

4. Handling Cultural Nuances In The Medical Context

In addition to complying with the directives and regulations of the medical industry, translators must consider cultural sensitivities during medical document translation.

You must be thinking about how cultures can impact medical translation. In fact, this is often overlooked. Yes, the cultural context can indeed have a huge impact on the accuracy of medical document translation.

For example, when translating culture-specific items, it is crucial to take the target culture into consideration to avoid inconvenience and misunderstanding. Translating an idiomatic phrase like “warm-up” when referring to a medical device in a user manual can lead to misunderstanding if it is done literally.

Moreover, certain medical terminology and jargon may hold different meanings in different countries.

For instance, while the word “surgery” means “an operation performed on patients” in American English, it refers to “the office hours of doctors” in British English. Even a single medical term can have different references in American and British English. The American English “Operating Room,” for instance, is known as the “Main Theatre” in British English.


If the medical translation agency you are partnering with lacks native-speaking translators of the target language you require who are also terminology and culture experts, it will never yield you the high quality you expect.

5. Linguistic Challenges of Medical Document Translation

1. The Complexity of Translating Eponyms In Medical Lexicon

Dealing with eponyms is one of the difficulties translators face when translating medical documents. Medical eponyms are diseases, medical conditions, anatomical parts, and medical devices named after a person.

Most medical eponyms are derived from the names of prominent physicians and researchers, sometimes from the names of celebrity patients, like Lou Gehrig disease. 

According to The National Library of Medicine, the number of medical eponyms is estimated to be more than 8,000.

When translating eponyms, sometimes the source and the target terms can be eponymous like Down syndrome in English and its Polish equivalent zespół Downa.

However, what can be truly challenging for translators is when only the source or target term is eponymous while the other is a pathological or descriptive name. Fallopian tube in English, for example, is equivalent to jajowód in Polish.

Linguistic Challenges of Medical Document Translation
Linguistic Challenges of Medical Document Translation-2

And a professional medical translator needs to have deep knowledge of medical eponyms in both the source and target languages to be able to deliver an accurate translation of them without difficulty.

2. The Complexity of Translating Abbreviations And Acronyms

Being on an LFD (lactose-free diet) is definitely different from being on a low-fat diet or a low-fiber diet.

Abbreviations and acronyms have always been sources of confusion in translation generally, let alone in the highly sensitive medical field. 

According to a research paper published in The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, 643,151 medication errors were reported to the MEDMARX program from 682 facilities, 29,974 of which were attributable to the use of abbreviations. 

And although most English medical acronyms and abbreviations are widely adopted by other languages, like C-reactive protein (CRP), Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), and High-density lipoprotein (HDL), some abbreviated forms can still vary in other languages, like X-ray and its Polish equivalent Rtg.

Translators have to navigate such variations carefully because they can become a source of ambiguity, potentially leading to inaccurate medical document translation.

The Complexity of Translating Abbreviations And Acronyms

3. Falling For False Friends

Have you ever heard about the false friends of the translator? False friends are words that have similar forms in two languages but carry entirely different meanings, which can be misleading to non-professional translators when handling medical documents. 

You will be astonished to know that the stomach condition “peptic ulcer” is not equivalent to the French “ulcère peptique.” In fact, the correct translation of the condition in French is  “ulcère gastro-duodènal.”

If the translator does not possess excellent linguistic skills in both the source and target languages, they may produce inaccurate translations. And in the field of medicine, such mistakes come at a high cost.

The 18-year-old Willie Ramirez paid the price for falling victim to false friends. Ramirez was taken to the hospital by his family, who claimed he was “Intoxicado,” a Spanish word that means “food poisoned,” which was misinterpreted as “Intoxicated” in English by the hospital. He was misdiagnosed with a drug overdose and treated accordingly. Tragically, the incident left Ramirez a quadriplegic. 

4. Handling The Doublet Phenomenon

Doublets, sometimes called etymological twins, are two words that have one meaning or etymological root but two different phonological forms, like “Bone” and “Osseous Tissue.”

In medical translation, doublets can be challenging for translators, who have to choose the most suitable term for a specific context and a certain type of audience. 

For example, if a physician informs a patient’s family that their son has an “Intracerebral hemorrhage” instead of “Brain Bleeding,”  that may inadvertently confuse them. Even if the physician is addressing native English speakers, it’ll be all Greek to them because he is delivering information to a lay audience. 

The same goes when translating documents like fact sheets, informed consent documents, package leaflets, and drug information leaflets because they are directed toward non-specialized readers, and that’s why a less complex language needs to be used.

So, to ensure clarity and accuracy and avoid misunderstandings resulting from the inaccurate use of doublets, medical document translation needs to be handled by professional subject-matter experts. 

How To Overcome The Challenges of Medical Document Translation

Despite all of these challenges, medical document translation is manageable. Partnering with a professional medical translation services provider can save you all the worries. 

A professional medical translation company will provide you with quality, conditionality, professionalism, and everything else you might need for your medical services to remain in compliance with the regulations of the medical sector. 

Don’t know where to find that? Look no further than TransPalm. With over a decade of experience working with all types of medical, pharmaceutical, and healthcare content, TransPalm has been the language service provider of choice for multiple medical service providers, healthcare organizations, pharmaceutical companies, drug manufacturers, clinical research organizations (CROs), medical facilities, and more. 


Our medical document translation is regulatory compliant, powered by certified medical translators and linguists who are experts in the medical sector, and reviewed by professional subject-matter experts to achieve the highest levels of technical precision, accuracy, and consistency. 

Medical Document Translation Agency Everything You Need To Know As A Client

Benefit from TransPalm’s quick guide to choosing the most professional medical document translation provider. Download the comprehensive whitepaper for FREE.

Ready To Be Our Partner Contact Us Now, Your Peace Of Mind Is Just One Click Away

No comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *