You are a refugee in a foreign land where they speak a different language. Your child is sick and you must seek health care. Without an interpreter your ability to communicate is minimal or non-existent and you are not quite sure what the doctor is saying. You are sent to the pharmacy with the prescription, but get lost on the way because you can’t read the hospital signage. Going home takes forever because you misread the bus schedule. It takes you many days to schedule your child’s needed surgery because of the language barrier with the appointment desk staff, and also because – as a single parent holding two jobs just to make ends meet – you are incredibly short on free time. The day before surgery you receive a reminder call and even though you don’t quite understand the caller, you say, “yes, yes, OK” because you are trying to be polite. The day of surgery arrives and by sheer luck a nursing assistant who speaks your language discovers that your child ate a full breakfast that morning. The surgery is canceled, you receive several “dirty” looks and are sent home to reschedule.
This scenario and many similar ones were unfortunately quite common until recently. It is only in the last 10-15 years that we in health care started using trained interpreters to communicate with patients and families who have limited proficiency in English. At Children’s, these days may seem now like a distant past, as we have had a tremendous growth in this area. Manager of our interpreter services Michelle Chillstrom tells me that we currently have 35 staff interpreters. Our most frequent languages are Spanish, Somali and Hmong, but the list of languages that are routinely interpreted at Children’s is long – 43 in the past year.
Watch this short video by HRET to get the feel for what a health care encounter might look like at Children’s if we didn’t have interpreters:
Boris Kalanj is the Director of Health Care Equity and Cultural Competence at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. Read his bio.