Hospitals face growing need for medical, language interpreters

Hospitals across the country face a demand for medical interpreters--and solutions such as conferring with a family member or an interpreter via a phone service don't always meet the need, NPR reports

To illustrate the danger of using family members as interpreters, NPR cited the story of an 18-year-old baseball player taken to a South Florida hospital in a coma. His family thought the teen ate something that made him sick but the interpreter translated to the doctor that they thought he was intoxicated. By the time the doctor realized it wasn't a drug overdose and he actually had a brain bleed, the teen suffered permanent brain damage and is now a quadriplegic.

Although phone services offer help in several languages, the people on the other end of the telephone usually aren't certified medical interpreters and don't necessarily understand medical terminology, according to the article.

"One problem that I run into with the translator phone is a lot of our elderly patients seem to be kind of confused by it," Angela Alday, an internist at Tuality Healthcare, a community hospital in Hillsboro, Oregon, told the publication. "You know some of them don't hear very well so that can be a problem with the phone translator. And then, particularly if the patient has dementia, sometimes using the telephone translator is confusing. They don't know what's going on."

Salem Hospital in Oregon is now working to contract with an American Sign Language interpretive services provider to offer translators for the local deaf community, according to the Statesman Journal. The hospital plans to train emergency department leaders on deaf patients' rights to request interpreters and will also post signs in the ER regarding the hospital's interpretive services. The initiative comes in the wake of patient complaints that hospital staff refused to call for in-person interpreters and when they did, the interpreters were poorly skilled, tardy and unprofessional.

The language barrier problem isn't limited to Oregon. New York City's residents include more than 1.8 million speakers of limited English proficiency (LEP), the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs told NY City Lens. The city's largest groups of LEP minorities speak Spanish and Chinese.

Health policy experts suggest hospitals offer patient education in different languages, provide easy-to-understand materials in different languages, and offer language interpretation services and discharge documents in other languages.

"Organizations, leaders, and decision makers really need to understand that language access is a business imperative, not a minority issue," Gayle Tang, senior director of National Diversity and Inclusion at Kaiser Permanente, told the publication.

One Pittsburgh hospital may have found an inexpensive and effective solution, according to 90.5 WESA.  Forbes Hospital in Monroeville uses a software program that provides interpretation and language services at the touch of a button.  The program provides patients with access to interpreters in 200 different languages--including sign language--24 hours a day. The hospital has used the technology in its stress lab, emergency and radiology departments, according to the article.

Previously Forbes would hire interpreters to come to the hospital. They would charge as much as $70 an hour with a minimum requirement of two hours, plus travel expenses, for what sometimes would be a three-minute conversation, the article said.

The need for certified healthcare interpreters with clinical expertise isn't only to communicate with patients--it also guards the hospital against liability, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
- read the NPR article
- here's the Statesman Journal report
- check out the NY City Lens article
- see the 90.5 WESA story