Interpreting in health care: Why health care providers should skip the drive-thru method

Technology in the language services industry is in rapid growth mode. However, there seems to be a misunderstanding among the masses of ways technology will solve problems regarding language barriers in our society today. Perhaps it says something about the way we think and how we carry ourselves day to day. We've heard it referred to as a "drive-thru" society at times, i.e. we don't have time to stop the car, go inside and order our food. Rather, we'd prefer to sit in the comfort of our own vehicles and order at the window, assuming that service will be quicker and we can get on with our days a bit more easily. For anyone who has ever gone through a drive-thru more than once, you know that this may not be the case. You may end up sitting in line longer than it would have taken you to simply park the car, go inside and order your food to go. So how do our fast food society habits compare to language access and technology?

Recently, medical students at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) created an application (app) for medical translation. An article published by UCSF in 2011 stated that a couple of medical students were frustrated at how long it took them to communicate with Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals, especially at night and on the weekends. It also mentioned that the San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH), where they worked, "...offers assistance in more than 65 languages through a combination of staff medical interpreters, a telephone language line and a video medical interpretation system proving real-time access to providers and patients within four minutes." Four minutes! In most fields, access to an interpreter in that amount of time is incredibly fast. So, why the need for a translation app?

One of the students, Alex Blau said, “Ninety percent of diagnoses come from the patient’s self-reported medical history, so the ability to communicate is critical,” referring to nights and weekends. “Time is not an asset doctors or patients have. You need that information when you need it.” We would say it's safe to argue that most patients, whether they speak English natively or not, would rather their doctors slow down and take the time to talk with them (not to mention, in their own language).

In order to solve their dilemma, the students decided to create an app that would "translate" medical history questions into other languages. The article did not mention whether or not there was a feature that would "translate" the patients' responses. How would these students capture responses from patients or further explain if a patient does not understand the question, is illiterate or hard of hearing? Many professional interpreters know that when a patient is asked his or her name, at times, the patient may not even be able to spell it. An app certainly won't solve this issue.

The best choice is to have a professional, trained interpreter present in person, on the phone or available via video access. If a patient needs assistance via a professional interpreter, waiting the four minutes (and many times, less!) will give everyone peace of mind to know that the patients' concerns and medical information is interpreted accurately and efficiently. One more issue comes to mind when considering the features of the app in general. Although the creators have made it available in multiple languages with multiple questions about one's medical history, how does it really save time? It seems to only save a little time on the wait time (which, we have already established is really not that long), as patients have to take the time to read or listen to the questions and then respond. We would argue that medical interpreters are much more efficient in rendering the message accurately and interpreting the answers patients give, which tend to be explanations, rather than one- to two-word responses. Telephonic and remote video interpreters, as well as on-site interpreters, also work in the evenings and on weekends. So, availability is typically not an issue if the medical provider has a quality service provider.

Going to the doctor's office can be stressful enough, with filling out insurance forms, waiting for the doctor and feeling sick all at once. After waiting to see a doctor (which will certainly take more than four minutes), we'd like to think we can take the time we need to fully explain what we've been feeling or experiencing, without having to read or listen to an app, which may or may not contain the questions necessary to discuss our ailment. If we needed an interpreter, we would hope the doctor would take the four minutes or less to access one and read our charts while we wait. This seems like a much better use of technology and time.