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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.

“Obamacare” and LEPs: How does the law upheld by the Supreme Court affect the translation/interpretation industry?

What a week it’s been in politics! Now that the Health Care Law has finally gone before the Supreme Court, which upheld it on a 5 to 4 vote, those of us who work in medical translation and interpretation on a daily basis want to know: What does this mean for us?! For most Americans, the Health Care Law has been confusing from the start. However, imagine how confusing it could be for those millions of Americans who have limited English proficiency (LEP). This can be even more confusing for them. What are their rights? First, we have to look at what the rights have been so far for these individuals when it comes to language access in health care.

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Executive Order 13166, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” (42 U.S.C. Section 2000d). In short, any organization, whether a clinic, hospital or other health care facility that receives federal funding must comply with this executive order by providing language access (free of charge) to LEP individuals. This is also true in areas of law and other fields, but for the sake of this post, we’ll stick to the health care issue at hand.

Unfortunately, many health care facilities will try to get around this law by asking patients to bring a friend or family member who is bilingual, or many times, they’ll have someone on staff come in to “interpret” for LEP patients. For those who work as interpreters and language agency owners or project managers, we know that this is a bigger problem, as those individuals are usually not trained in the medical terminology needed to carry out the appointment, nor are they trained in the fine skill of interpretation. Much of these attempts to weasel one’s way out of providing professional, quality service stems from the fact that these facilities have to foot the bill.

Don’t get us wrong. Many, many hospitals and doctors offices DO comply with Title VI;, however, many, many more do not. According to the National Center on Immigration Policy, LEP individuals accounted for 25.2 million (9%) of the population in 2010, although large concentrations of these demographics were attributed to states like California, Texas, New York, Florida, Hawaii, New Mexico and Massachusetts, among others. More and more states are seeing a rising number in minority populations whose first language is not English. In fact, although the Latino population has had steady growth in the past ten years, just recently, Asian Americans became the fastest-growing minority in the U.S.

So, what does all this have to do with language access in the health care debate?

One of the biggest issues in the political discussion on health care has been cutting costs and allowing all to receive health care and be insured. Although we may not see health care insurance covering the cost of language access for LEP patients anytime soon, we should see money saved by both insurance companies and health care facilities that provide professional language services to patients, as many more individuals will be able to go to the doctor and receive the care they need. Those who do not provide these services, but rather, rely on untrained individuals or (even more sadly) no one at all, will see their costs go up and possibly skyrocket, because miscommunications often lead to more doctor’s visits and adverse events that could have otherwise been avoided by providing proper language access to their LEP patients.

One section of the law discusses the implementation of effective approaches and specifically identifies “the ongoing, accurate, and timely collection and evaluation of data on health care disparities on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, primary language, and disability status.” This data will be invaluable to many of us and it will be interesting to see if the information on patients’ primary languages affects the way that health care providers are reimbursed for offering professional language access services to patients.

Although up until now health care providers have not reimbursed by Medicare and Medicaid, we may see this change as a result of the passing of the Health Care Law. Provenzano argues, “Ultimately, one of the best arguments for Medicare reimbursement for language services is that the services themselves represent the linguistic equivalent of preventive care. By spending modestly up front to communicate effectively with LEP patients, Medicare—as well as Medicaid and private insurers—can save significantly through the prevention of costly errors.”

For those of us in the interpretation and translation industry, we will see a larger need from our clients who require on-site and telephonic oral interpretation, as well as the translation of vaccination records, consent forms, insurance policies, prescriptions, medical charts, etc. We’ll be on the edge of our seats to see what the next several years hold in store for all of us as Americans, especially LEP patients and we who provide professional language access to them every day.

For more information on LEP rights, please visit http://www.lep.gov/