For people who have limited English language proficiency, interpretation services can mean the difference between a successful health outcome or a decline in medical care.
“Before, I had a lot of issues because I didn't know how I was going to access medical care,” said Augustine Rivera, a patient at AnMed Health Wren Family Medicine in Piedmont. “But now with this interpretation service; I know that I can communicate with the provider.”
As recipients of federal funds, hospital systems are required to provide language services to every patient. At AnMed Health, in-person and video remote interpreting language services are available for Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, American Sign Language, and Gujarati. Through an external network, an additional 200 languages can be accessed.
Rivera, whose first language is Spanish, mostly relies on in-person interpretation but he has received video remote interpretation services, as well as audio-only.
Telehealth technology, including video remote interpretation, provides a visual to help interpreters and providers gauge body language, according to Dr. Michael Seemuller, medical director for Wren Family Medicine and chair of quality and safety for AnMed Health Physician Network.
“If an interpreter can see that patient, while they’re talking, it’s an added benefit,” Seemuller said. “A virtual visit on a smart pad or an iPhone or a smartphone is really not a whole lot different from speaking to an interpreter in the same room.”
Seemuller said his familiarity with the technology of interpretation services helped him transition smoothly to telemedicine early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We went from in-person visits to virtual visits in the span of four days because we already had the technology piece built up to support interpretation services,” Seemuller said.
Language services are “absolutely necessary,” to provide excellent care, he added.
“Interpretation services have been invaluable in allowing me to do my job,” Seemuller said. “From my standpoint, subtle nuances and words matter and can make a difference in a diagnosis or choosing a different diagnosis. And when you don’t have an absolutely clear understanding of what someone is going through, you can make mistakes and make the wrong diagnosis.”
In Anderson County, the number two languages spoken are Spanish and Russian, and the third is American Sign Language.
Juana Slade, chief diversity officer at AnMed Health, said language services have evolved over the past decade, not only at AnMed, but across the healthcare industry.
“Now we find ourselves in an era of health equity, diversity, and inclusion, but relative to diversity is specifically the ability to communicate with our patients in a way that they understand, so that they can take part in their care,” Slade said.
She emphasized the importance of cultural competence - understanding how a person’s culture, background, or ethnicity might impact their interface with the health system.
Jonathan Rios, supervisor of the language services department at AnMed Health, echoed that cultural needs vary, depending on a patient’s background. Interpretation can be complex when some terms or phrases have totally different meanings across cultures. Rios called the profession fulfilling because he is able to help people who are in vulnerable situations because of a language barrier.
“It is kind of the best feeling in the world that you are someone who is helping get the message between provider and patient,” Rios said. “I tell my interpreters, ‘the more you feel ignored, the better, because you know that the relationship between patient and provider is intact.’”