Have a Story to Tell? Had a medical error?

This blog is about patient safety, medical malpractice, staying healthy, and preventing future errors. Help & empower someone else, Teach a lesson, Bear witness, Build our community - Email us or call 781-444-5525.

Frustrated with a health problem?

Need an ally in your health crisis? Call 781-444-5525, or learn more.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A pictogram in return for another pictogram: Diabetes patient education

Consultations with Mrs. L are difficult: sometimes, she comes
without her diabetes logbook, or forgets to have the requested
HbA1c assay. Above all, she comes either alone or accompanied
by someone who, like herself, speaks nothing but Chinese. All I
can do, in order to understand her repeatedly high HbA1c
levels, is to look at her logbook and try to understand the
documented insulin doses and the blood glucose concentrations.

Recently, I admitted her to hospital. Firstly, we verified that
the technical aspects of blood glucose determination and
insulin injection were perfectly correct. I also told her that
I needed an interpreter. A Chinese neighbour who was fluent in
French came with Mrs. L on the following day. I first checked
with Mrs. L the basics of adapting insulin doses and began to
ask her questions through the interpreter. No answer. I
therefore asked the interpreter if he, himself, had understood
the meaning of the questions. He was positive. I then asked Mrs.
L to tell me what she thought of insulin. No answer. I realised
that she knew nothing about it and that the treatment made
absolutely no sense for her.

This situation reminded me of John Searle’s "Chinese room"
argument. Imagine a Westerner, speaking English but not
Chinese, in a room with a window. Through the window, a Chinese
person shows Chinese pictograms. The Westerner has a manual,
written in English, instructing him how to show a pictogram
specific for the pictogram he sees through the window. He is
not aware that the pictogram he sees is a question, and that
what he then shows is the correct answer. The Chinese person
outside cannot work out that the Westerner does not understand

In the case of Mrs. L, we doctors were the Chinese. We had no
direct way of recognising that the blood glucose determinations
or the insulin injections that she performed impeccably had no
meaning for her.

I decided to start her education from scratch. What is
diabetes? What is a normal glucose concentration,
hypoglycaemia, hyperglycaemia, etc? Repeatedly, I asked the
interpreter whether he understood and whether he thought that
Mrs. L understood. He was affirmative. I arrived at a problem—
how to verify that the dose of insulin was correct. At this
point, I was unsure whether the interpreter understood the
question, and I decided to stop the session, giving him another
appointment for the next day. In fact, I doubted the
interpreter’s comprehension of the real sense of what I had
said. It seemed to me that the Chinese room was now separated
from me by two walls and windows.

The next day, a different person accompanied Mrs. L to the
appointment—her nephew, also perfectly fluent in French.
Needing to go through my explanations all over again, I decided
to use another strategy and asked the nephew to imagine that he
was diabetic, and that he had to listen to my explanations as
if they concerned him, in order to give a meaning to the
therapeutic education. Only then would he translate the
information to his aunt. I had the sensation of trying to enter
the Chinese room by climbing through the first window.

To a lesser degree, this story may be relevant to many
consultations, even when there is no obvious language barrier.
It is vital that the patient understands the message as a whole
and not just the words, or else the treatment routines may be
analogous to nothing more than showing a pictogram in response
to another pictogram.

Advice for speakers of a foreign language: Get a good interpreter.

Thanks to Dr. Gerard Reach for the source article in the Feb. 16 issue of the British Medical Journal.

No comments: