Emergency translators

Tuesday May 11, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- Imagine the pain of a ruptured appendix shooting lightning through your side.

Imagine the fear as you rush to the hospital, not knowing whether it's a pulled muscle or something more.

Imagine making your way to the door of the emergency room, and you can't understand a thing -- signs, doctor's questions, prescriptions -- because everything is in another language.

It's a scenario that, with the help of a dedicated group of translators, has been banished to the realm of the hypothetical in the Berkshires. The mission of Berkshire Medical Center's Language and Translation Services is to make care a universal language.

"As soon as there are people walking into the emergency room, once we have the interpreter, we actually avoid a lot of extra testing," said program manager Veronica Bedard. "If a patient cannot really explain their symptoms, they will likely be called for more X-rays, more lab work. If you can get the right story of the real symptoms, everybody can save money and time."

As Gov. Deval L. Patrick launched the statewide "You Have The Right To An Inter-preter" campaign last week, which continues to push awareness of free hospital translation services to immigrant communities, BMC's Language and Translation Ser-vices are in a position to make even more strides within the Berkshires.

Hilary Greene, program director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center, said that BMC's efforts were particularly helpful, especially for those who aren't aware of the range of medical options.

"[Many in their home countries] don't have primary health care providers and they don't really understand preventative medicine -- they don't really have access to doctors," Greene said.

"The language just adds a whole new layer, because you're much less likely to walk into a place that's scary to begin with," Greene continued. "And then not being able to tell people what you need is a huge barrier."

According to Bedard, the program currently has one full-time translator, as well as 13 "per diem" translators constantly cycling for duty. "We're here every day, every day we get called," Bedard said. "We get about 10 requests per day."

With the hospital's on-site translators focusing on Spanish, Portuguese and Russian -- with a new French hire to serve West African patients due in the next few months -- doctors can also call a translation phone service as a backup, which is equipped for 170 different languages.

Additionally, there are signs at every entrance telling patients in 20 different languages that they have a right to a free interpreter, and everyone manning an information desk is trained to help contact a translator if necessary.

According to Bedard, the average amount of "booking" time for speakers with limited English proficiency is about two to five minutes during regular business hours. In addition, she said, translation services via telephone, or video for American Sign Langu-age patients, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Whenever possible, the hospital's translators will remain with a patient for the duration of their treatment, staying nearby during procedures ranging from X-rays to childbirth.

Bedard stressed that due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, all patients' information is kept confidential.

"We say, ‘We will interpret everything that you say, everything you say will be confidential,'" Bedard said. "I can see the relief on their faces."

In addition to providing doctors with pertinent and timely information about a patient's symptoms, the hospital's translation services also helps bridge the cultural gap experienced by many immigrants with limited English proficiency.

One common issue, Bedard said, is dealing with the cultural shift in terms of food, and helping people deal with the health issues resulting from the sudden dietary shifts.

"We provide materials, discharge instructions in the target language with the interpreter and a lot of the materials are printed into the language they understand," she said.

"Patients should not be afraid to go to an appointment because of the language barrier because we have interpreters," Bedard said. "It's not charged to them, and they shouldn't be nervous to ask for one. We have successful stories here pretty much every day."


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