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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Daily News
Subject: Language Access
Type: Media Coverage

Report: Language Help Better for Patients at NY Hospitals

Two years
ago, Aida Torres rushed her feverish daughter to the emergency room.

Doctors at the Brooklyn hospital tried telling Torres that her mentally retarded
daughter, Madayeli, needed surgery for an ovarian cyst, but the scared mother
didn’t understand them because she doesn’t speak English.

Frustrated and desperate,
the native of the Dominican
sought help from a Spanish-speaking
hospital maintenance worker. He wasn’t able to help either; Torres eventually
asked a friend to leave work to interpret.

The New York Immigration
Coalition and other groups released a report this week on the availability of
language assistance at city hospitals for non-English-speaking patients — a
vexing problem in a city where roughly 2 million people speak little or no

The report says that such
help at hospitals seems to have improved since 2006, when state health
officials began regulating communication between hospitals and their
non-English-speaking patients, but more still needs to be done, particularly
regarding languages such as Korean, Haitian Creole, Russian, Arabic and

For people who don’t speak
English, the language barrier makes it difficult for them to explain symptoms,
understand doctors’ diagnoses and navigate the insurance system, advocates
said. The barrier can lead to misdiagnoses and even death, they said. Mistaken
amputations, sterilizations and abortions have resulted from such barriers,
they said.

Forcing patients to rely
on hand gestures or relatives, friends or other patients to translate medical
information can lead to miscommunication, violates privacy laws and can
traumatize, say, a child relaying to a parent that the parent has cancer.

"It is simply
impossible to provide quality health care unless patients can communicate their
symptoms clearly, understand their diagnosis and knowingly consent to medical
procedures," said
Andrew Friedman, co-executive director ofMake the Road New York, a civil rights organization that participated in
the report.

The report, "Now
We’re Talking," was based on surveys conducted between October 2007 and
February of this year of 617 patients who speak Spanish or Korean but not
English. Officials stressed that the study wasn’t scientific and provided only
a snapshot.

It showed that 79 percent
of patients said they received help in their native language compared to the 29
percent who said during a survey before the 2006 regulations that they communicated
with hospital staff in their native language.

Before the regulations,
which require private and public hospitals in the state to provide skilled
interpreters, translate important hospital forms into common languages and
ensure patient care isn’t delayed because of language issues, it wasn’t
uncommon for hospitals to tell non-English-speaking patients to bring their own

According to the new
report, only 5 percent of patients reported being told to bring their own

"Hospitals have made
real strides and have figured out how to communicate with Spanish
speakers," said Adam Gurvitch, the coalition’s director of health

But there’s "a real
disparity" when it comes to hospitals serving speakers of other foreign
languages, he said.

"There’s some
progress there, but not nearly enough," he said.

Nisha Agarwal, a staff
attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which advocates for
such patients, said language assistance in hospitals appears to have improved
since 2006 and she doesn’t get as many calls from patients.

"Also, in
conversations with hospital administrators, I get the sense that there is more
awareness of the problem and a greater willingness to do something about
it," Agarwal wrote in an e-mail.

That said, progress has
varied for different groups, she added.

"Communities where
Asian languages are spoken tend to still have serious problems accessing health
care services in a language they can understand," she wrote. "This is

Claire Pospisil, a spokeswoman
for the state Health Department, said the agency is constantly working to
ensure that language assistance is provided to New Yorkers at hospitals.

She said the agency’s
hospital complaint line receives more than 10,000 calls each year; of those calls,
there were only 20 complaints about language translation in 2006 and 10 last


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