Hospitals Have a Shortage of Interpreters Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

April 17, 2020

Going to the hospital can be a nerve-wracking experience – you’re so sick that you need professional help, and until you can talk about it with a medical professional, you face the uncertainty of not knowing what’s wrong with you and when, or if, you’ll feel healthy again.

For those who need medical attention in a place where they don’t speak the same language as the people treating them, that experience is significantly more traumatizing, and it’s something that is currently happening more frequently during the coronavirus pandemic.

In hospitals across the United States, staff members that do medical interpretations work daily with their colleagues to ensure that all of their patients are able to communicate with the people who are taking care of them.

Medical interpreters translate conversations between doctors and nurses and their patients, explaining complex medical concepts while maintaining doctor-patient confidentiality.

Around 100,000 people have jobs like this in the United States, but since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are no longer working in hospitals in the same capacity as before.

Some can no longer work because their hospitals have told them that they have to do their work in person, and, for a variety of reasons, they don’t feel safe doing that. Because of how medical privacy laws work, interpreters can’t use FaceTime or Zoom to translate due to a lack of end-to-end encryption for those services.

Without a telework option, interpreters have to choose between their own health and the health of their patients.

In other places, hospitals are working with third-party translation services that meet the encryption requirements, but in the process have furloughed or laid off their in-house interpreters.

Interpreters say that the connection between interpreter and patient is important, and the conversations between them need to be in person or by video. “If I’m talking to you over the phone, there may be body language you’re exhibiting that I might not be able to read,” Salome Mwangi, a medical interpreter in Boise, Idaho, told Time.

For many hospitals, the coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call that highlights the need for another system that will allow them to communicate with their immigrant patients.

“Our limited English proficient communities deserve the same level of care as everybody else,” said Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, chief diversity officer at University of Wisconsin Health. “If our system continues this course of action it’s very possible that all those people will be alone and unable to communicate in their last moments of life. It’s terrifying.”

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