An outside-the-box strategy to find medical interpreters

As hospitals across the country grapple with a lack of medical interpreters, one California hospital has come up with an innovative strategy to communicate with patients who don't speak either English or Spanish.

Natividad Medical Center, a 172-bed acute-care teaching hospital in Salinas, CA, has created a language interpreter service for patients who speak Mexican indigenous languages. And to find interpreters, the provider has looked within the walls of local emergency rooms, according to Public Radio International (PRI).

The provider, frustrated by the inability of clinicians to communicate with patients, recruited interpreters from its own waiting rooms. Hospital leaders turned to the family members and friends who often accompanied patients. Among them, the article reports, is Angelica Isidro, who is fluent in English, Spanish and Mixtec, an indigenous pre-Columbian language with no roots or all in Latin. According to PRI, such languages have about as much in common with English as Mandarin.

Some 40 million people in the United States have limited English-language proficiency, and the issue is hitting healthcare providers nationwide, as demand for interpreters soar.

Some hospitals have had to resort to telephone or video-based interpretation services in order to communicate with their patients. That is a lower-cost alternative to bring interpreters to the hospital, which can cost $30 or more per hour. Moreover, the inability to communicate with providers can create a serious safety issues for patients.