Imagine yourself in a foreign country with a medical emergency and unable to communicate with the medical professionals. In the United States, 1 in 5 people are limited in English proficiency. More than 24 million people in the United States speak English poorly.
Fortunately, local hospitals can provide interpreters for patients with little or no English speaking abilities at three of their facilities. These interpreters are employees of the hospital system, but volunteer their time helping non-English speaking patients to understand what is going on in their surroundings while under the hospital's care.
"Patients have the right to receive and give medical information in a language they can easily understand," said Ana Belen Rojas Harris, diversity / special needs coordinator for Humility of Mary Health Partners. "It is equally important for our staff to communicate effectively with patients in order to provide the right treatment."
HMHP has 14 interpreters who translate Spanish, Russian, Cantonese Chinese, Bosnian / Croatian / Serbian and Arabic. Spanish is thenumber one language in need of an interpreter in the Youngstown area, and HMHP employs seven Spanish interpreters. According to Harris, without this service, limited English proficient patients have higher rates of infectious diseases and infant mortality. They also do not follow-up with preventative care as needed due to the language barrier.
At Trumbull Memorial Hospital, Spanish, Greek, Italian and Slavic interpreters are available, according to nursing supervisor Sandy Kurdziel. According to Kurdziel, TMH has nurses on staff who are fluent in other languages who interpret the medical terminology to the patient. At TMH, Greek is the language that needs interpreted most often.
Training is provided to volunteer interpreters before they can interpret for patients, Harris said. Interpreters must translate everything verbatim, even if it may be off color or offensive to the doctor. No adding, omitting or substituting is permitted, even if the question is irrelevant, redundant or rude.
According to Harris, respect to the patient is the number one priority of the interpreters. Eye contact between the patient and interpreter is very important. It is imperative to have the patient repeat back the instructions for clarification of understanding.
Confidentiality is also very important, and no written information may be shared with outsiders. Interpreters also may not insert their own personal judgment or cultural values.
According to Harris, family members of patients who lack fluency in English but attempt to translate for their family member are known as ad-hoc interpreters. However, it is hospital policy at HMHP that every patient with limited English is provided with an interpreter or a language line phone. At TMH, nursing supervisor Yvette Hughes said that hospital policy allows family members to interpret, and also allows them to stay with the patient if they are in a private room.
Sami Halaweh, an Arabic interpreter at HMHP, said she is happy to help in anyway possible.
Harris said, "We all come from diverse backgrounds. We are like a motif, but we share the common thread of interpreting for our patients."
Harris is passionate about her work and expects this passion from all of her interpreters. Harris has spent the majority of her life interpreting the Spanish language for the non-English speaking population.
Hughes said that in some emergency situations, kitchen staff at TMH who can speak Greek are used as interpreters. "We used to have a lot of employees who retired because of age," Hughes said, "and the younger ones don't speak the native tongue."
If there is not an interpreter available, both HMHP and TMH rely on a language line phone. The phone is a three-way calling system between the patient, doctor and hospital personnel in their own respective languages. Hughes said that TMH also provides boards with symbols to aid in the language barrier, and non-English speaking patients point to symbols.