When unaware of the resources that each individual is entitled to, relying on people we are familiar with seems like the only choice. Through my time volunteering at clinics that serve primarily non-native English-speaking patients, I am still shocked at the number of patients who come in with a family member they’d brought to translate paperwork and interpret their symptoms. Oftentimes, it’s their daughter or son who was pulled out of school to be able to accompany their parent. Other times, it’s a significant other who may or may not be able to understand English a little bit better. Having this language barrier creates a reliance on those who understand the language.
At the beginning of my career as a medical interpreter, I was instantly reminded of the importance of having a qualified medical interpreter in instances where the patient identifies as a non-native English speaker. During my first week, I served as an interpreter to a patient who was accompanied by his wife. As soon as the doctor and I entered the room, the wife seemed to dominate the conversation. The questions that were directed toward her husband, she answered before he could even begin to respond.
For this patient, a qualified interpreter had never been present at his doctor visits. Instead, he relied on his wife, who fully understood English and had learned basic Spanish. However, we soon found out that his wife had not been able to properly interpret and communicate to her husband his medical condition and the importance of adhering to his medical treatment. At his previous visit, he had blood drawn and his results indicated high levels of cholesterol.
Despite the doctor disclosing this information during the consult, his cholesterol levels were still alarmingly high. When asked about his response to the medication prescribed, the wife admitted he had not been taking it. At this point, the provider realized the need to speak solely to the patient, without the wife’s input or influence. The wife was respectfully asked to step outside for the remainder of the visit. This allowed us to finally hear the patient’s voice and his concerns.
As the provider and I worked as a team to explain his previous lab results and his medical condition, the surprise and concern were clearly visible on his face. As we had guessed, he had not been made aware of the extent of his condition. He did not understand the reason why he needed to take medication every day if he felt no symptoms or discomfort. Using this logic, he refused to follow his medical treatment.
During this visit, he not only gained an understanding of his condition and the importance of staying on top of his medication, he also gained relief through his ability to disclose all of his symptoms and questions. For many patients like this in rural areas, it’s not only the fear of cost that prevents them from seeking out medical care, but it’s also the slim possibility that they could explain all of their symptoms of discomfort in detail.
The clinic had been under the impression that the patient understood his condition, or that the wife had been successful at communicating the details of his condition. However, as we saw here, this was not the case. Like the wife, many relatives that accompany patients struggle to interpret medical terminology. Although their intentions are pure, this lack or misuse of medical terminology has the potential of creating life-threatening situations if the patient does not understand every factor associated with a diagnosis.
This interaction offered an unforgettable lesson for both the provider and me. As language barriers prevail in the healthcare industry, the need for medical interpreters rises to ensure equal and quality healthcare no matter the language barrier. A resource like this is something that every patient should be able to rely on.
Sharay Castanon Franco graduated from ALTA’s interpreter training as a qualified medical interpreter and is a member of Emory Volunteer Medical Interpreter Services. She currently attends Emory University, double majoring in Neuroscience & Behavioral Biology and Human Health.