Medical interpreters in short supply as health coverage grows


Apr 27, 2015 / by Katharine Allen & Barry S. Olsen


From the San Francisco Chronicle...


Article Excerpt: Vietnamese interpreter Siu Williams and her fellow linguists are in such demand at Stanford Hospital that the sprawling campus has become like a trampoline and the hallways like treadmills.


“We bounce from one building to another building. Sometimes at the main hospital, we run,” said Williams, describing a typical day helping a blur of limited-English-speaking patients at the medical center communicate with health care providers. “At the end of the shift, I don’t need to go to the fitness club.”


When it comes to one of California’s most overlooked medical needs Williams is essential — and perilously rare.


She is among only 738 certified medical interpreters in the state just when federal health reform has extended coverage to 1.7 million Californians with limited English skills. Overall, 6.8 million Californians — 20 percent of the state’s potential patient population — aren’t proficient in English, according to the 2010 census.


Link to the full article HERE.


Watch medical interpreter Siu Williams at work:



Medical interpreter Siu Williams at work from San Francisco Chronicle on Vimeo.


InterpretAmerica's Take: Five years ago, it was hard to find articles on medical interpreting and language access for patients in the US healthcare system. Now, such articles are common, reflecting the growing recognition of the importance of issues surrounding medical interpreting. Several aspects of this week's Interpreting the News article make it especially noteworthy.


The first is that it refers to the need to hire and work with certified medical interpreters over other kinds of medical interpreters as a given. This is new. In some ways, the tone of the article is somewhat misleading. National medical interpreter certification (offered through CCHI and NBCMI) is only 5 years old and is just now reaching a point where those who hire interpreters are making it a requirement. And there are certainly many highly-qualified, experienced and trained medical interpreters working in California who do not yet have certification that shouldn't be dismissed as subpar professionals, the way this article does. But it does indicate that the writing is on the wall for heatlhcare interpreters. Certify or fall into a category viewed as less qualified by buyers and employers. In the long run, this means progress for our profession and for all who fight so hard to elevate it into a serious, professional field. In the short run, we are looking at a period of some confusion and adjustment as the field works to embrace certification. 


Second, this article does an excellent job of showing exactly why medical interpreting can't be left to the untrained or undertrained bilingual, while at the same time, demonstrating how even leading interpreter service companies struggle to provide the breadth and depth of training needed to develop the needed skill set.


Finally, this quote in the article from Justin Forbis, a spokesman for DaVita, the largest dialysis chain in the country, shows how poorly understood existing legislation still is by major medical companies: “It is a requirement that we are able to speak to patients in a language that they understand...How the translation is provided is not regulated, however, so that means translation can come from teammates who speak the language, family members of the patients or, if those options aren’t available, phone translation.” To the contrary, Federal guidance for providing language access does provide concrete guideliness for "how the translation [i.e. interpreting]" should be provided. And it does NOT include the use of family members or untrained teammates. Those hospitals who have been ordered by the Office for Civil Rights to implement compliant language access programs know all too well how costly it can be to rely on family members. 


Medical interpreting has come a long way in a short amount of time. And as last week's ITN on recent migrant deaths in the Mediterranean highlighted, it is needed all over the world, not just here in the US. How well we succeed in professionalizing medical interpreting in the US will have impact around the globe. 


This conversation, and many other issues coming down the pike for the interpreting profession, will be highlighted at InterpretAmerica 5 on June 12-13, 2015, in Monterey, California. Won't you join us? Early-bird registration ends on Monday, May 4, 2015. 

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