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Know Your Rights
Source: Independent Press Association NY
Subject: Language Access
Type: Media Coverage

Native Languages Heal

52-year-old Lydia K., it was a nightmare that could have ended in tragedy. When
her mother Cecilia K. suddenly fell ill and developed a high temperature, Lydia called
911. She had only lived in the US
for four years and did not speak English that well, but she still understood
the paramedics when they told her that her mother had to be hospitalized right

were taken to Methodist
Hospital, where a surgeon
determined that Cecilia needed dangerous emergency surgery. Lydia understood
this as well, but it was beyond her linguistic capabilities to understand what
the diagnosis was, why the surgery had to be done right away, and why she had
to sign papers giving permission to operate on her elderly mother. And this
meant that the document she signed allowing the operation was not valid.

there were no Russian-speaking medical workers on duty who could have explained
the situation to Lydia.
Both she and hospital staff members were frantically searching for an
interpreter. Finally, Lydia’s
nephew arrived two hours later, within the critical time period designated by
the doctor. But her mother’s condition worsened, and the operation had to be
done under more complicated conditions.

is not a new topic: interpreters are needed at medical institutions, where
mutual understanding between doctors and patients is key to health and can
sometimes be a matter of life and death. The New York Immigration Coalition
particularly emphasizes this fact in its research on the interaction between
the city’s hospitals and its two million residents who speak English poorly
(this is the Coalition’s count). The report’s authors stress that patients who
do not speak English cannot describe their symptoms to a doctor, understand
their diagnosis, or make sense of their insurance. The researchers uncovered
more than a few cases where this language barrier resulted in incorrect
diagnoses and erroneous amputations, abortions, sterilizations, etc.

authors are categorically against relatives, friends, or other patients serving
as interpreters for two reasons. First of all, interpreting mistakes can be
made for which no one can be held responsible. Second of all, doing this breaks
doctor patient confidentiality. Imagine that a patient’s son takes on the role
of interpreter and finds out that his parent has cancer…

is absolutely impossible to provide quality care if the patient cannot describe
his symptoms clearly or understand his diagnosis or the procedures that he will
undergo," said Andrew
, co-director of
Make the Road New York
and a participant in the Now We’re Talking study,
which took place between October 2007 and February 2008. Human rights advocates
surveyed over 600 mostly Spanish- and Korean-speaking patients who did not know
any English. It turned out that 79 percent had had the chance to converse with
medical personnel through an interpreter. This marks enormous progress in
comparison with 2006, when only 29 percent of patients were able to receive
this service. This progress was achieved thanks to the introduction of new
rules requiring both city and private hospitals to provide experienced
interpreters for patients and to make various forms available in different
languages. After this policy was put in place, only five percent of patients
needed to find their own interpreters, but these cases involved rarer

Pospisil, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health, said that
interpreting services have been under constant monitoring over the past year,
which is why only ten of the 10,000 complaints received by the Department about
hospitals concerned interpreting.

Now We’re Talking Study reached pretty much the same conclusion. And this is
good news.