Medical Interpreters

Houston is an international city with multiple languages. Just about every day those languages show up in Houston hospitals in patients needing treatment. Getting proper medical care depends on accurate information from patients. Capella Tucker reports on how one hospital is making sure the lines of communication stay open.


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Getting accurate information to diagnose and treat a patient becomes all the more difficult if doctor and patient do not speak the same language. That’s where interpreters play a key role.

Texas Children’s Hospital Assistant Director of Family Relations Department Frida Wilson:
“Bridging the language gap is a big concern to us. We want to make sure our families understand what is being told to them or what they want to tell us.”

Texas Children’s has a staff of 13 interpreters available on site. But recently they expanded the staff through a program called  MARTTI, which stands for My Accessible Real-Time Trusted Interpreter. It’s a type of video-telephone. The computer sits in the corner of the room on a rolling cart.

A couple of clicks with a remote and the emergency room or doctor’s office is connected with an interpreter.

(sound of phone ringing) “Thank you for contacting Language Access Network. My name is Bridgette and I will be your ASL interpreter. This interpretation will remain confidential. Please talk directly to the patient and I will interpret everything accurately and completely. You may proceed.”

In this case we proceed with an interview. Bridgette can be seen on the computer monitor and she can see everybody standing in the room. Bridgette is a sign language interpreter which she says is the second most requested language for the program. She says the most challenging cases for her are mental health calls.

“Alzheimer’s is very hard, and they sign almost like mumbling. That’s probably the most challenging thing that’s out there when you get a deaf person out there who is not wholly cognizant and so you are getting signs that may not really be signs but you are trying to voice whatever you get.”

All interpreters go through extra training to handle medical terminology. Carmen is a Spanish interpreter. She says in front of her are more computers that help her.

“If I’m interpreting and I know it’s going to be an oncology call, I can pull up on my screen and quickly look if there’s not anything that I’m understanding, but most of the time it’s very basic.”

And that’s because the patient needs to understand.

“Even if I say they found you have osteosarcoma in the lower extremity, in the right lower extremity, yes, I’m interpreting it, but that doesn’t mean the patient understood any of it. So we are trying to interpret for meaning.”

Carmen will ask the doctor to rephrase in more everyday language. She says being able to see a patients physical reaction to what is being said is crucial.

“I can see if they responded, I can see their facial expressions, if they smile. One time I told a patient they found cancer and her face was very passive. And I know cancer, everybody should know cancer, but I told the doctor I did not know if the patient understood and we asked her and she said is that bad? Is that something bad? I couldn’t believe it that that happened.”

Capella Tucker, KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.

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