Costs and benefits of providing competent interpreters in the medical setting

By John Bichsel.

Even a non-emergency healthcare encounter can be a bit stressful, but imagine a medical  crisis where you understand nothing the doctors and nurses are saying as they administer anesthesia and prepare to conduct surgery. What sounds too strange to be true happened to Angelina Díaz-Ramírez, a non-English speaking farmworker in California after she suffered a heart attack on the job and was not provided an interpreter. You can read her story here:

Far from being an isolated case, these incidents happen with alarming frequency in the healthcare setting, even when the patient’s primary language at home is Spanish, as it is for over 38 million Americans. When the patient’s language is uncommon, such as Triqui, the indigenous language from Mexico that Ms. Díaz-Ramírez speaks, there is a good chance that the individual will never be assigned a medical interpreter. The result is a host of problems and violations, even though there are thousands of speakers of Mexican indigenous languages in the U.S.—workers from southern Mexico have been coming here for over seven decades, following a traditional pathway in response to the need for laborers in agriculture and other occupations. You can see their story here:

The costs of not providing interpreters in the medical setting are often life changing and deadly for patients. For hospitals and agencies, not providing interpreters is a nightmare, leading to misdiagnosis, incorrect treatment, poor patient compliance, and death, as revealed by many case studies in the area. And then there is the legal cost—see the following about two recent lawsuits in Colorado due to the lack of competent ASL medical interpretation:

There is gradual progress being made to provide qualified trained and tested medical interpreters for all languages in the U.S. However, in spite of executive orders, guidelines, regulations, and policy recommendations (see for an example), competent healthcare interpreting has a long way to go. To fix the problem requires (1) testing medical interpreters to ensure they have the knowledge and skills necessary to competently provide language services, and (2) training medical interpreters and other personnel in the skills and best practices of the field, including not only the modes of consecutive and simultaneous interpretation and sight translation, but also anatomy and physiology, ethics, and cultural competency. NCI’s mission to ensure competent language access in the medical field hinges on training and testing interpreters, and we have been at the forefront of medical interpreter training and testing for over a decade; please see the following link for our proven training and testing programs and products: