The use of family members as translators in medical environments has been on the decline for years, and hospitals are struggling to provide sufficient and accurate translation services to meet the growing demand. There is a growing trend to use technology in this area, with mixed results.
Translating from one language to another is a tricky business, and when it comes to interpreting between a doctor and patient, the stakes are even higher. In medical situations, doctors and hospitals often turn to family members for help with interpreting, but that can be problematic.
Thirteen years ago, the state of Oregon recognized the problem and required doctors and hospitals to start using professional interpreters. The Affordable Care Act also has expanded the kinds of materials that hospitals and insurers are required to translate for people who don't speak English. But more than a decade after its state law passed, Oregon still has trouble getting all patients the medical interpretation help they need.
For example, many hospitals and doctors turned to a phone service, where they can quickly get help in several languages. But the people who work for those language services often aren't certified medical interpreters — so aren't necessarily conversant in medical terminology — and are working at a distance, which can lead to other problems.
ELSA, or Enabling Language Service Anywhere, gives users quick access to interpreters who can translate between English and 180 other languages. Dr. Angela Alday, an internist at Tuality Healthcare, a community hospital in Hillsboro, Ore., says that up to 20 percent of her patients require an interpreter. "One problem that I run into with the translator phone is a lot of our elderly patients seem to be kind of confused by it," Alday says. "You know, some of them don't hear very well, so that can be a problem with the phone translator. And then, particularly if the patient has dementia, sometimes using the telephone translator is confusing. They don't know what's going on."
Isidro Hernandes, a 48-year-old landscaper in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley, says (via medical interpreter Armando Jimenez) that he, too, prefers an in-person interpreter to one on the phone. Hernandes, who speaks primarily Spanish, landed in Tuality hospital for treatment of heart problems after feeling tightness in his chest at work.
"A lot of times the over-the-phone interpreter can't see what you're doing, can't describe or relay that message," Hernandes says via Jimenez. "And sometimes they might have errors or mistakes in communications."
Oregon has about 3,500 medical interpreters. But Helen Eby, a certified medical interpreter in Oregon, says only about 100 of those have the right qualifications. "So, you have a 3 percent chance of getting a qualified or certified interpreter in Oregon right now," she says. "That's pretty low, in my opinion."
She says it takes a long time and costs a lot of money to become certified. And after going through all that training, a person may find that he or she can make more money and have a more stable lifestyle in another career — like being a translator for court reporting. That's because medical interpreters tend to be consultants and don't get paid to travel. The hours can also be sparse and sporadic.
A study by the American College of Emergency Physicians in 2012 analyzed interpreter errors that had clinical consequences, and found that the error rate was significantly lower for professional interpreters than for ad hoc interpreters — 12 percent as opposed to 22 percent. And for professionals with more than 100 hours of training, errors dropped to 2 percent.
To help ease the shortage of interpreters in Oregon, the state's Office of Equity and Inclusion reports that it is trying to increase training and add 150 new interpreters over the next couple of years.
One potential solution not mentioned in the main article is the increased use of telepresence solutions in the medical environment, which combine the cost savings of phone based ELSA with the visual capabilities of a person on-site. Additionally, many of these products can be used for remote healthcare consultation. We offer many different options, ranging from fixed position tablet carts, to our robotic controlled Kubi Carts, to full screen LCD or Laptop carts, depending on the needs of the organization.