Why we need more medical interpreters

March 5, 2013

By Amanda Ream

For more than a million Californians, the promise of expanded access to health care is at risk – because nurses and doctors can’t understand the language they are speaking.

Imagine the birth of your first child. You are in a hospital with medical professionals who make little effort to communicate with you because you don’t understand their language. Whenever you try to ask what the doctor is saying, a nurse simply repeats, “All is well with the child.” The doctors and nurses come in, do their job and leave, unable to explain the actions they are taking.

You leave the hospital, and take your baby home as a proud new parent. But complications from your childbirth arise, and you return to the emergency room, where you are treated and given pain medication. You follow the instructions for the medication as best you can, despite the inability to communicate with health providers at the hospital. A week later the swelling and pain continue. You go to the emergency room to find out what is wrong.

As you are being treated in the emergency room, the staff notices that your baby has a fever, fluttering eyes and an irregular heartbeat. Your baby is hospitalized for three days in intensive care because of the tremendous amount of pain medication you passed on to your child through breast feeding.

This is the story of Otillia Ortigoza, who recently gave birth at Mercy Community Hospital in Fresno. She is telling her story because she wants to make certain this never happens to any mothers or children ever again. Sadly, her story is not uncommon.

More than six and a half million residents in the state of California – nearly one out of every six residents –speaks English “less than very well,” according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Right now there are 2.5 million patients in the Medi-Cal program who aren’t able to communicate with their doctors without an interpreter. And it’s going to get worse: one-third or more of the patients expected to gain access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act won’t be able to communicate with their doctors either.

The success of healthcare reform in California, the first state in the nation to make healthcare available under the Affordable Care Act, depends on access to medical interpreters.

Interpreters can make the difference between life and death for Limited English Proficient patients. In California today, there are no interpreters funded through Medi-Cal, even though doctors and hospitals are expected to provide them. Without funding, doctors use whoever they can find to interpret, often times children or family members.

A trained, professional interpreter who understands medical terminology and who can facilitate an accurate conversation and treatment plan can save a life like that of Otillia Ortigoza’s baby.

This Spring, the state legislature and the governor have the opportunity to create a medical interpreters program in Medi-Cal funded largely by federal dollars. This program could create thousands of jobs for bilingual healthcare interpreters and make quality healthcare a reality for Limited English Proficient patients.

Access to health care for all is a tremendous goal, but it won’t be realized without a way for patients and doctors to communicate with each other.

Amanda Ream is a Strategic Analyst for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who focuses on health care issues.

For more on this issue, see this video.

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