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Overcoming language barriers in healthcare

Posted at 9:14 AM, Jun 15, 2023

The medical terminology used at your doctor’s appointment can be confusing…even when English is your first language.

In medicine, patients with limited English proficiency are more likely to get the wrong type or dosage of medicine. They’re also more likely to get the wrong diagnosis, miss appointments, and misunderstand the recommended treatment.

In Utah, Intermountain Health is making it possible for patients to overcome those language barriers.

Carlos Martinez is an interpreter who oversees interpretation and translation services for all of Intermountain Health.

“We have close to 80 interpreters in our team in eight different languages where their largest employer of professional interpreters in the state,” said Martinez.

There’s no one path to become a professional interpreter.

“From people who were doctors in other countries and moved to the US and now are using their knowledge to help interpret to people that came to this country as refugees, knowing no English, who were dependent on interpreters,” Matinez said there are many ways to utilize your language skills to help others.

Martinez said his path started with education.

“I moved to Utah back in 1997 to go to college and finish my degree in biology and chemistry at the University of Utah. Ended up being an interpreter…”

Imagine the life of your child, your spouse, your parent…imagine your own life hanging in the balance as you hear a doctor speaking a foreign language. You would likely feel helpless until an interpreter arrives.

“You can see that the relief in someone's eyes, both from our providers and to when they're trying to and struggling trying to communicate,” said Martinez.

And in a medical setting, precision, even in language, is critical to success.

“Not everyone that's bilingual, has the ability to interpret. We go to training and testing certification processes, to ensure that we understand our role and facilitate communication without becoming part of the conversation. And that's what's happening often with family members and friends. they end up adding things or keeping things from the doctor to paint their loved ones in a better light,” said Martinez.

And an interpreter may also perceive miscommunication because of cultural differences. Martinez offers an example from his personal experience.

“The concept of the evil eye, malleable in Spanish, it exists in every culture, but it's not very prevalent in, in U.S. culture, with the exception of obviously, Native Americans who strongly believe in things like this,” said Martinez.

If a patient is worried about this and Martinez can tell, he responds with an invitation, rather than an explanation.

“So, we may say something like this, excuse me, Doctor, this is the interpreter speaking, I believe there must be a misunderstanding rooted on the belief of the evil eye, you may want to talk to your patient about it. And they will turn to the patient and say, the interpreter was telling your provider that they want to ask you about the concept of the evil eye, right. So we communicate it to both hands, and we just were the catalysts for the conversation to have,” said Martinez.

And those conversations are critical to healing.

“We're always helping people…ensuring everyone in the community has access to our services, we cannot help people live the healthiest life possible, is some of the people don't understand how to get there,” said Martinez.

Interpretation services at Intermountain Health are free of charge at all facilities. To find out more visit intermountainhealthcare.org.