Interpretation services provided in more than 166 languages
Hospitals and healthcare systems can be rife with medical terminology and acronyms and regardless of what language one speaks, it may all sound like gobbledygook. But thanks to a group of highly-trained interpreters, patients at Parkland Health & Hospital System receive the healthcare information they need, in a language they understand.
Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin is prohibited. Therefore, healthcare providers including hospitals that receive federal funding such as Medicare and Medicaid are required to provide language access services for their patients free of charge.
At Parkland, Dallas County’s only public hospital, it means services are provided in more than 166 different languages. In fiscal 2016, there were 975,000-plus interpretations provided to limited English proficiency (LEP) patients system-wide. While the majority of the interpretations were for Spanish-speaking patients, there were also patients who spoke Vietnamese, Arabic, Burmese and lesser known languages such as Kinyarwandan (the official language of Rwanda), Rohingya (a language spoken in Myanmar) and K’iche, which is a Mayan language of Guatemala.
“Our goal is to provide fast, high quality service to every patient we serve, regardless of what language they speak,” said Meredith Stegall, Parkland’s Director of Language Services.
And yet for some it may mean providing services for someone who does not speak.
“We’ve had patients who were deaf and did not learn American Sign Language,” Stegall said, noting that a “gesture interpreter” was utilized to provide communication between the patient and the provider.
“A lot of people think we just provide Spanish interpretation, but that’s not the case,” said Nataly Criollo, a Parkland interpreter who is considering obtaining a certification in sign language. “I am in awe of gesture interpreters. I can’t imagine how they do their jobs because it takes such a tremendous skill, but every patient deserves to have someone who can speak in their own language so they can get the medical information they need.”
Criollo, whose family is from Colombia, spent several years working as a medical interpreter at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth before making the transition from a pediatric hospital to Parkland. “I never thought this would be something I’d be doing for a living, but in reality I’d been interpreting all of my life,” she said. “I would help people in airports or grocery stores or even in my private doctor’s office.”
Stegall, Criollo and Darwin Escobar, who also serves as a Parkland interpreter, stressed that just because a person can speak another language doesn’t mean they can be a medical interpreter. At Parkland, staff must pass a proficiency test and receive seven weeks of intensive training that includes medical terminology, ethics and standards of excellence before they can serve as interpreters. And even then, the learning continues daily. The average interpreter at Parkland has nearly seven years of experience.
Escobar, whose family is from El Salvador, said there are some words that in English are easy but depending on whether a patient is from Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia or another Spanish-language country, the word may be different. “Drinking straw is a perfect example of a word with 10 or more ways to say it,” Escobar said.
Although Criollo thought her future might end up in some form of interpretation services, it wasn’t something Escobar was contemplating until a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington recommended the career path. “I was working on finishing my Spanish degree and knew I didn’t want to be a teacher, so when my professor told me I had all the qualifications for a position at Parkland I decided to check it out,” he said, acknowledging that it was one of the best decisions of his life.
What makes their role more than just a job is knowing at the end of the day they provided a service that truly benefits patients and their families.
“I wake up every morning and look forward to going to my shift because we’re making a difference in people’s lives,” Escobar said. “It can be very hectic when you’re in the Emergency Department, a patient has been injured and the doctor is asking questions to find out what happened and you’re relaying those questions to the patient and getting the answers. You have to stay on top of it.”
“But where else can you come to work and provide that link between the patient and the doctor when a newborn is entering this world or the family is having end-of-life discussions,” Criollo said, adding the importance of remaining a neutral third party in the discussion.
Although Escobar, Criollo and others provide in-person services, Parkland staff also has access to telephone and video interpretation services for patients. A national network is also available to provide language assistance for those who may speak in a rare dialect, Stegall said.
“Even though the law mandates that Parkland provide language assistance services for our LEP patients, it is the right thing to do for the business and our patients,” said Ildemaro Gonzalez, Parkland’s Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer. “Healthcare can be highly complex and often difficult to understand. If we can make it easier for our patients, then the benefits are three-fold: they recover more quickly because they know what they need to be doing, it reduces the hospital readmission rates and it lowers the cost to the taxpayers of Dallas County.”
For more information about Parkland’s services, visit www.parklandhospital.com.