Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/suncities/articles/1010sr-translate06z1Z1.html

Medical interpreters clear things up for patients
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 10, 2003
Kate Nolan

Any tourist knows that speaking a second language improves the odds of getting what you want at a restaurant, shop or train station.

It's the same for a hospital or health clinic, only the stakes are higher.

Medical diagnoses are based on detailed information about symptoms, medical history and lifestyle - things for which the patient is usually the best source.

Not getting that information impairs a doctor's ability to treat a patient. Not being able to talk with the doctor increases the patient's natural anxiety about visiting the doctor.

At Scottsdale Healthcare's two hospitals, a team of 13 interpreters and two translators is bridging the language gap. They work in a program that focuses on Spanish, the primary language of area non-English speakers. It's called Interpretation and Translation Services.

For patients who speak neither Spanish nor English, there's Cyracom, a widely used clinical phone service in which a code is punched in and an appropriate interpreter comes on the line. The ITS program's Spanish translators, professional linguists with masters degrees, prepare written materials, such as medical forms and brochures for Spanish speakers and generally have no patient contact.

But the interpreters - available all day, every day - work directly with patients and their doctors, serving 350 Spanish-speaking patients a week.

"As someone who was a monolingual person, I know how scary it can be," said program administrator Rose Thumann, 26, who came to the United States from Chile at age 7, knowing no English. Now Thumann's interpreting duties often involve small children in similar straits.


How interpreters work


Interpreters are staffed in the emergency department at Scottsdale Healthcare's Osborn campus and are on-call at the Shea Boulevard campus.

Most of their work is done in the emergency and obstetrics departments, and in the Heuser Family Practice clinic near Scottsdale Healthcare's Osborn hospital.

One recent day, interpreter Michael Federico was on duty at the family practice clinic.

Born in Yuma to Mexican immigrants, Federico, 26, grew up straddling the border. He learned English as a second language in a Los Angeles grade school. His mother recently retired as a schoolteacher in Baja California.

Federico, on the job for two years, relishes his job.

"You can see it in their faces. They light up when they see someone is there who understands them," he said of the patients.

The idea is for the interpreter to be transparent. But Maria Salgado, 52, of Scottsdale, had seen Federico three times in September, and she beamed like a friend when she spotted him entering the examining room.

"I like him. He's very friendly and very good in medical terms," she said.

Family physician Kim Olson Gibbs speaks only high school Spanish. But medical Spanish demands more, so she relies on interpreters.

The process looked a little like a comedy sketch.

Olson Gibbs turned to speak directly to Salgado. "Your medication from Mexico - how were you supposed to take it?"

Federico, in deep concentration, his hands folded over his belt-buckle, rattled it off in Spanish. Salgado, who's being treated for arthritis, responded in Spanish to Olson Gibbs, but her words instantly fed into Federico and out in English.

The doctor examined Salgado's knees, saying, "I'll start with the left knee."

Salgado laughed, said something and Federico relayed, "Good, that's the good one!" All three laughed.

Olson Gibbs poked the other knee and Salgado winced and said something. But there was no need to wait for a translation.


Interpreter training


Federico is taking a semester off from his studies at Mesa Community College.

Only a high school degree is required to be an interpreter, but candidates are tested and those who make the cut receive special training.

Candidates learn to triage patients, the way nurses do, to determine who needs attention first.

"Trauma always comes first. The rest is mostly common sense," Thumann said.

Interpreters also attend a 16-week training regimen that introduces them to proper medical terms and their meanings. The course work covers basic anatomy and complicated medical terminology, so staff can understand what the doctors are saying and put it into Spanish.

"Arizona doesn't require certification, but California does," Thumann said.

Scottsdale Healthcare has developed its own certification process, in anticipation that Arizona one day will require certification for medical interpreters.

Reach the reporter at kate.nolan@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-6863.