Is There a Translator in the House?

This article in the New York Times about the lack of language support in four New York City hospitals is as sad as it is maddening:

    When a Spanish-speaking hospital receptionist refused to interpret during her lunch hour, doctors at St. Vincent’s Staten Island Hospital turned to a 7-year-old child to tell their patient, an injured construction worker, that he needed an emergency amputation.

    With no one to bridge the language gap for another patient, a newly pregnant immigrant from Mexico with life-threatening complications, doctors pressed her to sign a consent form in English for emergency surgery. Understanding that the surgery was needed “to save the baby,” the young married woman awoke to learn that the operation had instead left her childless and sterile.

There are more than 150 languages spoken in the New York metro area but the article states that nearly all the problems cited in the legal complaint filed against the hospitals concern Spanish and Korea. I should think that these hospitals could have easily found local interpreters had they applied themselves.

But let’s just assume that the hospitals truly were short-staffed and there wasn’t an interpreter to be found…

Haven’t these hospitals heard about Language Line?
Language Line is a phone-based, on-demand interpreting services. You simply pick up the phone, tell them what language you need support for (they support them all) and you get connected to an interpreter within seconds. You put the patient on another line and you can conduct your conversation relatively smoothly. Granted, if the patient is in bed at the time, the phone solution is far from ideal, but it can’t be any worse than asking a seven-year-old to interpret.

I recently spoke with Language Line. They do a huge deal of work for hospitals and they even insure the quality of the work of their interpreters. I had assumed that most hospitals were aware of this service, or similar services. Perhaps the NYC hospitals were aware and did not want to pay (it can cost up to $2.50 per minute). Who knows. All I do know is that there is no reason for patients not to get the information they need in a language they can understand.

Yes, I know there are plenty of folks out there who will tell me that “this is America and people should speak English in America.” I’m well aware. But let’s assume an American is traveling to Russia on vacation and an accident ensues and the local hospital does not provide translation because “you’re in Russia now and you need to speak Russian.” I just think hospitals need to serve their patients, period, and that includes speaking to them in a language they can understand.

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Author: John Yunker

John co-founded Byte Level Research in 2000 and is author of The Web Globalization Report Card. He also co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.