We’re Sick of Not Being Heard – Redux

By Guest Columnist Apr 23, 2009

By Gerald Smith That’s what immigrants are saying again in health care institutions across the U.S., where interpretation and translation services are severely lacking. This time, it’s coming from Washington D.C. Just a few weeks after RaceWire published the latest video on the difficulty non-English speakers have just getting someone on the phone at hospitals, and a month after RaceWire’s gcolumnist Amal Abdulrahman wrote about interpreting terminal diagnoses to her ailing father as a 14-year old, the Washington Post has caught on, and published an excellent article laying out the exact problem:

Patients with limited or no English who do manage to obtain care can still fall prey to miscommunication. In a 2006 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Glenn Flores, now a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, detailed several such cases. In one, a mother misunderstood instructions and put oral antibiotics in a child’s ears. In another, a doctor not fluent in Spanish interpreted "she hit herself" as "I hit her," resulting in a mother’s losing custody of her children.

Some interpreters say medical staff sometimes are unsympathetic to immigrants’ needs. "There is a lot of prejudice and animosity," said Rosemary Rodriguez, an interpreter in Richmond. "Nurses say to me, ‘Why don’t they learn English?’ or ‘I know she speaks English.’ "

As the Post points out, despite the federal requirement that all health care institutions provide interpretation services to patients, many places fall short. Cost is often given as the reason, but, in some cases there is a clear prejudice towards immigrants. These stories are important reminders that as we hurtle towards health care reform this year, we must be mindful that access is more than just being able to go to a doctor. A huge factor for many immigrants’ decisions on whether to go to the doctor is whether or not they will be understood. Hospitals and clinics must be welcoming places, which for patients with limited English means having confidence that someone will be speaking their language. Gerald Smith is the Associate Director of NWFCO.