Translation services crucial to good health care at Alameda County Medical Center campuses
Posted: 07/16/2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
OAKLAND -- Fam Saephan is a slight, 31-year-old woman with short dark hair and a big toothy smile. She suffered a seizure in her native country of Laos when she was a child that left her a severe development delay. She is in a wheelchair and does not speak. But she seems to understand much of what is being said to her in Mien though she does not understand English.
And neither does her mother, Nai Saephan, her caregiver.
At Highland Hospital in Oakland, the young woman has been treated for seizures, digestive issues, skin problems and shoulder pain over the past six years. She communicates with her doctor and health care providers with the help of one of the 31 interpreters who translate for patients in 23 languages at Alameda County Medical Center campuses in Oakland, Hayward, San Leandro and Newark.
The medical center uses video conference machines, dual handset phones and speaker and conference phones to get vital medical information to patients, hospital officials said. They started basic translation services using telephones about 30 years ago with the first influx of southeast Asians into Alameda County. But five years ago they acquired 41 video monitoring machines and now serve about 88,000 patients annually, said Sambo Ly, the manager of interpreter services. Medical center officials called Ly the "godmother of the service" because of her work with non-English speakers in refugee camps and community health centers.
video conference machines were paid for with a $900,000 grant from the California Endowment. Before they arrived, the medical center provided translation services for about 35,000 patients annually, medical center officials said.
"We are the only (Alameda County) hospital that has this kind of extensive service," said Benita McLarin, vice president of ambulatory health care services. "It's a tremendous service. Alameda County is a wonderful place in terms of being a melting pot and a place where different people come together and I see people from all different cultures working together, in collaboration, toward improved health outcomes for all."
Interpretation services are much needed in Alameda County, where more than 50,000 homes in the county are considered "linguistically isolated," which means everyone in the home older than 14 can't speak English "very well," according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey on linguistic isolation in the county.
Of those, about 21,000 are Spanish-speaking households and about 25,000 are households where an Asian or Pacific Islander language is spoken, according to the survey.
And of course, Alameda County Medical Center clinics and hospitals are used by people who live outside the county. California as a whole has long been recognized as being one of the most racially and linguistically represented states, home to more than 200 languages, according to a report from Medi-Cal Language Access Services Task force.
About 40 percent of people in the state speak languages other than English at home with Spanish as the second most common language spoken at home, the report says.
On a recent visit to Highland, the Saephans saw Dr. Bruce Fitzgerald in a small examination room. Interpreter Kao Chao was there too, but on a video screen from his post at the Eastmont Wellness Center in Oakland. The verbal exchange between doctor, patient and translator was quick and seamless. The patient's mother told the interpreter that her daughter has been having digestive problems and the information was quickly translated into English for the doctor. The doctor suggested that the patient eat more fruits and vegetables and he checked her abdomen and said it appeared normal.
Fitzgerald, in English, asked if the patient has had any seizures recently and the interpreter translated the question.
"No seizures for five or six years," the mother answered in her native language.
They checked her blood pressure: normal; her itchy skin: likely eczema and in need of a topical cream; and a lingering shoulder pain: probably not serious.
"Since my daughter doesn't talk, my daughter always points to her left shoulder," Nai Saephan said. "But I'm not sure if it hurts or not."
The interpreter signed off, the doctor wrote prescriptions and the patient and her mother went home. Another satisfied customer.
Interpreter Syed Dabeer had already talked to many satisfied customers and his work day was far from over. "Seven in Spanish, one in Hindi, and two in Punjabi," he said. Dabeer, 51, speaks five languages, but uses Spanish the most.
"About 80 percent of the calls are in Spanish," he said. He is one of 31 interpreters who either work full or part time or are called "as needed," hospital officials said. He said he's taken and translated up to 17 calls in one day.
Interpreters take a written and oral test to become certified, and an increasing number of colleges, such as City College of San Francisco, are offering programs in interpretation services.
Under State Department of Public Health mandate, general acute care hospitals must have a policy and procedures for providing round-the-clock assistance to patients with language or communication barriers, limited or non-English speakers and deaf people.