Forum Puts Spotlight On Need for Medical Translation Services

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Nahla Kayali of Access California Association showing tools they developed to help the Arab American Community receive proper interpretation, including a card that reads, "I speak Arabic." (Photo by: Ryan Wallace)

Describing his parents’ struggle to save the life of his little brother despite their inability to communicate with doctors, Julio Perez made a plea during a healthcare forum held in Garden Grove Saturday for more interpreters in the medical field.

“Aldo never regained consciousness after undergoing the procedure to remove the sample from his spleen. … My little brother, Aldo Mauricio [5 years old] was pronounced dead shortly after midnight on April 14, 2008,” said Perez. He recalled that his parents’ lack of English skills led to confusion about consent for procedures and the severity of his brother's condition.

During the forum, Perez recalled the pressure and frustration of his problems communicating with doctors and his ultimate frustration of not being able to adequately explain to his family why his brother had died.

Perez and six others gave their testimonials to a gathering, which included community members, legislators and health organizations, with hopes of giving voice to those who cannot communicate with their health care providers. The forum, which was attended by more than 60 people, was organized by Interpreting for California, which seeks to provide interpreters to Medi-Cal patients in support of Assembly Bill 1263.

“We need to have a mandate to force [healthcare] providers to be held responsible,” said Paul Hoang, founder and director of Viet Care, a mental health organization for Vietnamese Americans.

The proposed bill would require the state Department of Health Care Services to establish a program to provide medical interpretation services to Medi-Cal beneficiaries with limited English skills.

Nearly 6.9 million Californians speak little or no English, and 2.5 million of these are Medi-Cal beneficiaries. Meanwhile, the need for medical translators is expected to grow as the Affordable Care Act increases the number of Medi-Cal recipients in 2014.

The needs of various communities within Orange County were described in detail at the meeting as community members stepped forward with personal accounts of how lack of interpreters had been detrimental to their families' medical care. Speaking in their native tongues, the forum was simultaneously interpreted to and from English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Khmer (Cambodian).

Also attending were state Sen. Lou Correa and Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who described their personal experiences with traversing language barriers.

Having grown up translating for his family that spoke solely Spanish, Correa spoke of the importance in proper communication. Quirk-Silva declared support for the bill while also stating the importance of community members maintaining their primary languages.

Acknowledging the hardships confronting patients with limited English proficiency and the family members who often translate for them, attendants at the forum called for more translators to be placed in hospitals and medical facilities to help these patients receive the best medical care possible.

“At least medical facilities should have interpreters; your life depends on that,” said Shahab Mirzaeian, a representative of Latino Health Access.  “Playing with someone’s life is not a game.”

Ryan Wallace is a student at UC Irvine. You can reach him directly at rpwallac@uci.edu.

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