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Posted: Wed Mar 20, 2013 04:12 PM

Tue Aug 25, 2009
Hospitals expanding interpreter programs.

Susan Loyer - Home News Tribune

For health care providers serving culturally diverse patient populations, one of the biggest impediments is lack of resources in appropriate languages, according to a recent national report.

But local hospitals are bringing down the language barrier in a number of ways, including using interpreters, bilingual staffers, training programs and language lines.

“It’s difficult for patients who come from foreign countries to work their way through a system when they don’t understand the language and the health system,” said Mariam Merced, director of community health promotions at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. “There is a cultural barrier and language barrier, so finding people they can communicate with in their own language puts them at ease and makes the process better for them and the provider.”

HealthEd Academy surveyed almost 200 health care extenders — nurses, dietitians, health educators, nurse practitioners and others who work directly with patients. When asked about the challenges of reaching culturally diverse patient groups, 29 percent of respondents cited communication and language barriers, according to the report, published this month by HealthEd Academy, the research arm of HealthEd, a health care solutions company.

“Hospitals take very seriously the need to be able to communicate with their patients in a number of languages,” said Kerry McKean-Kelly, spokeswoman with the New Jersey Hospital Association. “New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation, with more than 100 languages spoken here. It’s essential for good patient care that you are able to communicate effectively with that diverse population.”

It's the law
Hospitals are required to by law to provide communication with their patients in an array of languages, she said.

Some hospitals use an outside pool of interpreters who go into the hospital and provide language services. Another tool is telephonic interpreter services, which provides a three-way telephone call between the medical provider, the patient and a medical interpreter.

“It’s a good way to fill in the gaps to make sure you have 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage,” McKean-Kelly said. “It’s also a good way to access a wide range of languages.”

Some hospitals have bilingual staffers specially trained to provide interpreter services, she said.

The New Jersey Hospital Association runs a one-day, eight-hour, medical interpreter training program, she said.

“Participants must be bilingual, but it is not the language, specifically, that they are covering in the training,” McKean-Kelly said. “It’s the cultural sensitivity, the legal mandates and the ethical principles that apply to all interpreters no matter what language they speak.”

Ongoing training
In recent years, the New Jersey Hospital Association has trained more than 500 bilingual staff members as interpreters.

Hank Dallmann, program coordinator of the New Brunswick Community Interpreter Project, UMDNJ, Office of Community Health, conducts medical interpreter classes at Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick.

“The Robert Wood Johnson Medical School has been involved in medical interpreting and training medical interpreters in one level or another for about 10 or 12 years,” Dallmann said. “We started small and now we’re training hospitals and now two hospitals together are sending people.”

The interactive program is geared to Spanish-speaking interpreters, although the course is language-neutral, he said.

Dallmann said participants are not taught to speak Spanish.

“We screen them first to make sure they have the appropriate level of Spanish, and then I train them in the practice of medical interpreting,” Dallmann said. “They learn the code of ethics and where to stand. They learn about their roles as a medical interpreters. More importantly with the bilingual staff, they learn how to juggle their two roles. They wear one hat as an interpreter and one hat as a bilingual staff member, and it’s often very difficult to juggle the two.”

Robert Wood Johnson, which also offers access to a three-way interpretative phone service, has 35 to 40 employees who serve as volunteer medical interpreters and is in the process of adding 10 more, Merced said.

Training for employees began seven or eight years ago, with the help of a grant from the Rutgers Community Health Foundation.

The initial classes focused on Russian, Polish and Spanish, but the hospital’s main focus has been Spanish.

Merced said the hospital hopes to expand the program to include other languages.

Saint Peter’s, which also offers staff around-the-clock access to an interpretation service by phone, is offering medical interpreter training to employees on a volunteer basis as part of a pilot program, said Jay Jimenez, vice president for government affairs at Saint Peter’s.

“Our service area is so universal in its cultural diversity that we wanted to enhance our patients’ ability to communicate with us,” he said.
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