Lost in Translation: The Necessity of Medical Interpreters

It’s hard to go back and pinpoint the exact moment when I knew why I wanted to go into the health field. I think that a number of personal experiences I’ve had over the course of my 21 years have been crucial to shaping my path in the health field and building my support for a California, and a nation for that matter, that provides health care for all.

As a kid, I would always accompany my mom to the doctor and help to translate. Of course, this seemed harmless; medical terminology isn’t a big deal to be translated by a twelve year-old, right?

It turns out that in our health care system, most of the interpreting that takes place in a medical setting is done either by a family member or doctors with limited ability in the needed language. In a study done by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, it was revealed that in 35 malpractice cases that led to death or irreparable harm, 32 of the cases involved health care providers who didn’t use competent interpreters. Unbelievably, in one case the deceased patient was used as an interpreter before suffering respiratory arrest.

In another case, a California resident, Guillermo Garcia Rodriguez, lost his wife at the hospital due to lack of communication. Remembering this nightmare, Rodriguez said: “I was using either my friend’s wife, who was visiting sometimes, to ask her to interpret for me. Or anytime I would see anybody with a Mexican face or a Hispanic face, I would ask them to interpret for me so I can help my wife and [find out] what was going on with her health.”

As an adult now, reading about devastating cases where something could have been prevented, I can’t help but think about the several times I translated for my mom—for many different medical issues. What if I had told her to take the wrong amount of medicine? What if I translated the closest meaning to what I thought was being said and this resulted in something horrible for my mom?

Med Interpreter
Flickr: Anoto AB

Our bodies don’t operate on “What Ifs” and neither should our health care. At the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, we believe that everyone, regardless of race, immigration status or background should have an opportunity to achieve a long and healthy life. Lives are diminished when there isn’t adequate access to health care that is also culturally appropriate. It is time to realize that California is a state of nearly seven million tax-paying people that speak little to no English. In the medical world, this can mean only one thing—having access to a professional interpreter can mean the difference between life and death in hospitals.

Currently, LCHC is supporting AB 2325 (Perez) which would require the Department of Health Care Services to establish a program, “CommuniCal”, that would provide and reimburse medical interpreter services to limited-English medical beneficiaries. This is a crucial bill that would help to prevent situations like the ones mentioned above from ever happening again. Currently, AB 2325 is awaiting a hearing in Senate Appropriations.

So, I revisit my initial question again: Why do I want to pursue a career in the health field? One reason is to ensure that there are adequate services available to the low-income communities and communities of color across California composed of individuals who speak little to no English. Another reason is because I can’t help but feel a sense of service to people like my beautiful mom, who if I had been dealt a different card, could have been in a much worse situation as a result of my medical interpretation.

Even though I have only been a summer intern with LCHC for about one month, I have already learned so much about myself and about what we, as the people of California and of this country, can do to ensure that everyone receives the quality, culturally appropriate health care that they deserve.