Getting an accurate interpretation

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Hormigueo (tingling). Escayalo (plaster cast). Expediente (patient’s file). Presión arterial (blood pressure).

Two weeks ago, I didn’t know any of this Spanish medical terminology. Sure, I’m fluent in Spanish, but these words — as well as a few dozen (er, a few hundred) others — simply never came up in regular conversation. I’m hoping that will change soon, as I have applied to be a volunteer Spanish translator at an urban clinic in Chicago.* Which means, of course, that I will need to know quite a bit of Spanish medical terminology to successfully do my job.

I never took this position lightly. But the more I think about it, and the more I learn about interpreting, the more I understand that “professional” interpreters can make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful clinican-patient encounter, and between helping a patient making an informed versus an uninformed medical decision. I can help make that difference. I want to help make that difference.

When it comes to demand for Spanish interpreting, the need is only going to grow. According to a 2008 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic population is expected to grow from its level of 15 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2050. The percent of non-Hispanic whites is expected to fall from 66 percent to 46 percent — meaning whites are expected to no longer be in the majority, although they will still be the largest minority. And my home state, Illinois, is one of the centers of the Hispanic population. A 2006 U.S. Census Bureau document ranked Illinois as number 5 in the nation in terms of size of Hispanic population (1.89 million). Cook County, IL, my home county, was also ranked number 4 in the nation in terms of Hispanic population size, with 1.2 million Hispanic people.

Along with that increasing number of Hispanic people comes an increasing number of “Limited English Proficient” (LEP) patients in the medical context. These are people whose primary language is not English (Spanish, in this case), and who have difficulty reading, writing, speaking, and understanding English. According to a number of scientific studies, this language barrier can cause many health care problems, as summarized in an article published in Health, Research and Educational Trust in 2006 (“Do Professional Interpreters Improve Clinical Care for Patients with Limited English Proficiency?”):

  • less access to routine care
  • fewer physician visits
  • lower rates of preventive care
  • less follow-up for chronic illness
  • poorer understanding of Emergency Room visits (i.e., diagnosis and treatment)
  • less satisfaction with care
  • more medication complications

When it comes to Spanish, the problem is often not the lack of a translator. The problem is more frequently with the quality of the translation. Very often, “ad hoc” interpreters — people who are untrained, such as family members, receptionists, or other people in the waiting room — are used, which results in inaccurate and sometimes disastrous consequences. Sometimes, it is that the interpreters who are used are simply poorly trained. Because unlike courtroom reporting, there are no  national standards, or even guidelines, for health care interpreting at this time. The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care, an organization dedicated to promoting professional and culturally conscious interpreting, is working to develop a set of training standards (which are set to be done at the end of 2010). The idea is to eventually have national certification for interpreters.

Right now, though, we are far from that. And it is affecting patient care, sometimes dramatically. One study, published in 2007 in The Society of General Internal Medicine (“Are Good Intentions Enough?: Informed Consent Without Trained Interpreters”), found that Latina patients who were at a prenatal clinic being given the choice of whether to have amniocentesis were unable to truly give their informed consent to the procedure. In some cases, their interpreters did not fully explain what the medical practitioner was saying, either because of a lack of fluency in Spanish or a lack of medical understanding in general. In other cases, the procedure was not presented as being “optional,” but as “simply the next step in the clinical process.” In addition, it was often not communicated that there were any alternatives to amniocentesis (while a woman could have an ultrasound instead, although this test is not as definitive).

In short, the complicated nature of translating medical terminology, risks, benefits, potential complications, alternatives, etc. is something that requires more than being bilingual or “good” at speaking Spanish. It requires training and a fluency in medical terminology, in addition to privacy practices and other issues related to health care.

At the clinic where I want to volunteer, there is an orientation/training seminar where volunteers are tested on medical terminology to ensure they meet at least a minimum of requirements. In addition, I have spent hours (and I mean HOURS) studying literally hundreds of flashcards with words copied from my new best friend, the Spanish Medical Dictionary. I may not have to pass a set of national standards at this point, but I have my own standards. And I have set the bar high. Because I am serious about this job — it’s an important one, and it’s even more important to do it right.


*I’m still waiting to hear back regarding my application; apparently they are currently reviewing my references.