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For patients with limited English proficiency, interpreters and translators are increasingly valued as partners in care.
Illustration by Michael Woloschinow
"We are the conduit, But also the clarifier. We are not simply repeating words but making sure the message is understood."
- Rosa Ryan
In a Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center exam room, medical interpreter Julie Barshinger is working with a Spanish patient, a woman in her early 40s with a stocky build and a dark ponytail, who is concerned about complications related to her recent nose surgery.
But first, the woman must complete a medical history form. “¿Qué significa vertigo?” (“What is vertigo?”) she asks, as Barshinger goes through the list of symptoms on the form, verbally interpreting them from English to Spanish. Then later, “No sé qué es un soplo cardiac … ” Barshinger interprets the question — “I don’t know what a heart murmur is” — for the nurse who is preparing a nasal spray for the patient that will allow the doctor to look inside her nose.
“If it doesn’t apply to her, don’t answer it,” the nurse says kindly.
“I just want you to know that I have to interpret everything she says,” explains Barshinger, who is one of 18 full-time interpreters in Johns Hopkins Medicine International’s Language Access Services office. Part of Barshinger’s job is educating providers about her role.
Later, the nurse starts to leave the room to see another patient before the woman has completed her medical history form. “I can’t continue if you’re not in the room with me,” Barshinger says. The patient is consistently giving additional information about her symptoms: She doesn’t see well since her operation; she has some nasal bleeding; she sees the room spinning when she lies down. It’s crucial for Barshinger to communicate these potentially important details to the nurse, who stays in the room, answering questions when needed, until the form is complete.
Throughout the interaction, Barshinger knows little about the full scope of the patient’s health history. But she doesn’t need to know. “I’m not in charge of her care,” she says. “I’m only her voice. I want to make sure her voice is being heard by the right people. I’m also the voice of the provider, so she can communicate the very necessary and important information that she has to the patient.”
While Johns Hopkins, like other hospitals that receive federal funding, has been providing interpretation services for 50 years — since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin — requests for interpreters at The Johns Hopkins Hospital have grown dramatically since 2010, jumping from 23,000 to more than 50,000 annually.
This is due in part to the slightly rising limited English proficiency population in Baltimore City, which grew by about 4,000 people between 2000 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census. Today, the hospital also serves more refugees, about 2,500 of whom settled in Baltimore City between 2008 and 2012.
But Susana Velarde, administrator for Language Access Services at Johns Hopkins Medicine International, says the increase in requests is also due to the growing understanding among health care providers that they can do a better job treating their patients with limited English proficiency with the help of interpreters.
Because they prevent communication errors, certified interpreters improve patient safety. A 2012 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that patients with limited English proficiency who did not have access to interpreters during admission and discharge had to stay in the hospital between 0.75 and 1.47 days longer than patients who had an interpreter on both days. Moreover, when the interpreter has 100 hours of medical interpretation training — a qualification that researchers have found is more important than years of experience — they made two-thirds fewer errors than their counterparts with less training, according to a 2012 Annals of Emergency Medicine study.
The Language Access Services office’s full-time interpreters—who speak Spanish, Chinese-Mandarin, Korean, Russian, Arabic and Nepali — participate in an extensive two-year training program, which includes classes, tests and shadowing. Fifty percent of the team is certified; the rest are working toward certification, if available in their language. The office also has 45 medical interpreter floaters, and interpretation services are available 24/7 in person, over the phone or through a video monitor for patients with limited English proficiency who live in the Baltimore area and international residents who come to Johns Hopkins for treatment.
“We are the conduit, but also the clarifier,” says Spanish interpreter Rosa Ryan. “We are not simply repeating words but making sure the message is understood.”
For example, at the end of her visit on the otolaryngology floor, Barshinger walks to the front desk with the ponytailed Spanish woman to help her make a follow-up appointment. With Barshinger interpreting, the woman learns that she must get a Letter of Medical Necessity from her current insurer or change insurance companies before coming back to Johns Hopkins. When the administrator walks away, Barshinger checks in with the woman to make sure she understands the instructions.
“The patient might nod, but the information might not be registering,’” she says. “I try to check for clarification if I sense there is a disconnect.”
Interpreters are also cultural brokers. Yinghong Huang, a Chinese-Mandarin interpreter, remembers when a nurse in labor and delivery tried to give a Chinese patient a cup of ice water. “In China, for a woman who has just delivered a baby, we don’t want her to touch anything cold, let alone ice,” Huang explains. This is one of the many rules that Chinese women abide by for a month to help the body recover from childbirth. With Huang present, providers knew to give the patient hot water with her medicine instead.
Despite the increasing demand for interpreters, their expertise too often goes untapped, says Lisa DeCamp, assistant professor of pediatrics at the school of medicine. She is the lead author of a 2013 Pediatrics study that found that 57 percent of pediatricians who completed national surveys in 2010 still reported using family members as interpreters.
This is a bad practice for many reasons, she says. For one thing, family members often don’t have specialized knowledge of medical terminology. Moreover, both patients and family members may censor information. “If you’re talking about something that is intimate or personal and your son is translating for you, you might not want to disclose something about your sexual activity, your drug use or anything else sensitive that could be contributing to your problem,” says DeCamp, who is also a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
Even physicians with basic skills in a particular language should use an interpreter to prevent misunderstandings. “I [know] some high school Spanish, but I’m nowhere near fluent, so I need an interpreter,” says Cynthia Argani, director of labor and delivery at Hopkins Bayview, where about 70 percent of her department’s patient population speaks Spanish. “It’s not fair to the patient not to use one. The message can get skewed.”
DeCamp, who has passed a test certifying her as a bilingual physician, offers a real-life example from the literature that shows how this can happen. A pediatrician with limited Spanish language skills instructed parents to use an antibiotic to treat their child’s ear infection. In Spanish, “if you use the preposition, it really means, ‘put in the ear,’” she says. “So the family was putting the specified amount of amoxicillin that should be taken by mouth in the ear. That child is not going to die from an ear infection, but he’s having pain and a fever, and the family doesn’t have clear instructions on how to provide medication.”
On Barshinger’s rounds, after her otolaryngology visit, she walks at an impressively fast pace to The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center, where a mother recognizes her and asks her to be her interpreter. The provider who requested Barshinger’s services is not ready yet, so she has time to help.
A doctor carrying a sheaf of papers joins them in a busy hallway. She points to a long list of care instructions translated into Spanish, then begins to explain them to the mother. Because the doctor is verbally giving the instructions, Barshinger interprets. The mother needs to buy an extra-strength, over-the-counter medication and give her daughter a second medication three times a day, which she will need to “swish and spit,” the doctor says. A third medication will be applied to the daughter’s face two times a day, and a special shampoo is needed to wash her hair. Before an upcoming dentist appointment, she’ll also need to give her daughter three amoxicillin. When the doctor steps away, the mother asks Barshinger a question about her daughter’s dental visit, which Barshinger interprets when the doctor returns.
While interpreting, Barshinger stands to the side of the patient’s mother, allowing the doctor and the mother to face each other and communicate directly with one another. This simple tactic encourages providers to develop a rapport with their patients with limited English proficiency.
The goal? “To make the patient feel like the appointment is with him and not with the interpreter,” says Velarde. “The interpreter is just the voice. We want providers to have a bond with their patients, like they do when everyone is speaking English.”
Tapping the expertise of interpreters doesn’t have to complicate things for physicians, says Lisa DeCamp, a bilingual physician at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Her advice for colleagues:
- Educate the interpreter about what you’re doing so they’re not going in blind. Say a patient has severe abdominal pain. Providers can quickly explain to the interpreter that the first job is to rule out appendicitis.
- Sit across from the patient, with the interpreter standing at the patient’s side, and talk directly to the patient. The goal is for the provider and the patient to feel like they have a relationship with each other despite language barriers. When possible, use short phrases to help the interpreter keep up with the conversation.