by Nilsa Ricci and Patricia Rozzo-Leadley
You and your healthcare providers need to be able to communicate effectively. In the hospital, there are many different teams working with you to provide the best care possible; a misunderstanding with any of them can lead to serious medical problems.
Unfortunately, research studies show that Spanish-speaking patients are less likely to understand their medical diagnosis, medical recommendations, and follow-up plans after being discharged from the hospital when compared to English-speaking patients1. Sadly, the relationship Spanish-speaking patients have with their doctors is also less satisfactory1.
Fortunately, all sites receiving money from the federal government (for example, those that accept Medicaid) are required to offer a qualified interpreter1&2. Nevertheless, a lot of Spanish-speakers either think they know enough English to “just get by” in a conversation about medical topics or they choose a bilingual family member or friend to speak for them.
It may be the norm to ask a bilingual family member or friend to interpret for you, however, being bilingual is not the same as being a professional interpreter. The vocabulary learned at home is not the same as that used in medicine. A professional interpreter is trained to understand medical terminology, recognize when there is a misunderstanding, ask for clarification, and help you and your doctor understand each other better. A family member or friend, on the other hand, might not have the knowledge of medical terminology or might not be familiar with the medical implications of your case. If you want a family member or friend to interpret despite these possible communication risks, you can still request to have a professional interpreter present to support you all during the appointment. Regardless, your doctor also has the right to have a professional interpreter present to verify precise interpretation.
A family member or friend that accompanies you can provide special emotional support. You might want them to take part in the conversation or to help you remember questions you wanted to ask your doctor. However, if they also need to interpret, then it takes away from their supportive role and something could be forgotten. Breaking bad news to someone is painful, even more so for your loved one. It could also be uncomfortable having to divulge intimate or delicate information to your loved ones so that they can communicate it to your doctor. Furthermore, there is no guarantee they will always keep your confidence, but a professional interpreter must follow confidentiality rules.
There are situations where family members dominate the conversation, leaving you without a voice and having to trust that their interests are the same as yours. In this instance, you could be completely excluded from the conversation with your doctor. It is hard to build a relationship with someone you do not understand and even harder if you are not even part of the conversation.
A professional interpreter protects your voice so that you do not have to struggle against language barriers; hospitals should not be the new Tower of Babel.
Nilsa Ricci was born in Florida to a Colombian father and Peruvian mother. She graduated in 2016 from Columbia University in the City of New York with a B.A. in Neuroscience and Behavior. She is currently a medical student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. She also currently works as a URMC Spanish Interpreter.
Patricia Rozzo-Leadley was born in New York City to Colombian parents. She studied at Cornell University and is currently working on her degree in Adult Learner Education at SUNY-ESC. She is a nationally certified interpreter with 30 years of experience at URMC, currently serving as the Spanish Interpreter Trainer.
Illustration by Ken Calvert
Photo of a patient looking at a tablet by Cedric Fauntleroy from pexels.com