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Why Interpreters Are Essential: David’s Story

Under the Affordable Care Act, patients have the right to an interpreter if they cannot communicate effectively with a healthcare professional in any federally funded facility. It is frightening to see how many people are in situations where they cannot or do not receive those services. Soon after becoming qualified as a Spanish medical interpreter, I volunteered at a pop-up clinic that for 3 days offered medical, dental, and optometric services for free to those who normally could not afford it.

The way the pop-up clinic worked was simple:

  1. The patient first chose a section to go to (medical, dental, or optometric).
  2. The patient went to the primary station of that section where a doctor assessed what treatment they needed most and gave them a slip indicating what that treatment was. Due to low resources and high demand, patients could only get one treatment for the weekend.
  3. The patient then went to the secondary station where they were given the treatment on the slip.

The clinic did a good job of finding medical interpreters to sign up to help with the hundreds of patients (many of whom were limited English speakers) and the dozens of doctors for each section. Unfortunately, sometimes a volunteer-based clinic’s best efforts only go so far, because only five out of 25 scheduled interpreters showed up for the whole 3 days. As you can imagine, it was a chaotic few days for us five running around from section to section to interpret for whoever needed it. There are only so many directions five people can be pulled with so many limited English speakers.

At first, I thought we were doing a good job helping everyone we could. Then I was approached by a woman from the waiting area of the secondary dental station who saw my Spanish Medical Interpreter tag on my shirt. She told me that she had a miscommunication with the primary dentist. She explained that she was given a slip for routine dental cleaning but was not able to explain to the dentist that she had a mild toothache and wanted that checked. After that, two other Hispanic patients within earshot came to us and told me similar things: that they were given routine dental cleaning slips since they could not explain that they had toothaches that had been bothering them for a while.

Clearly, there was no interpreter available when the patients spoke with the primary dentist, so I brought them back to the primary dental station and interpreted for them myself. Thankfully the dentist either gave them the correct slip to fix their issues or explained why they did not need anything more than a routine clean and provided guidance on better dental care practices. Either way, the patients had a better understanding of what they needed and left the primary station feeling confident that they were being taken care of.

Clinics may be giving their best efforts with the resources they currently have, but those efforts can still fall short if there are not enough interpreters to stop patients like the ones I mentioned from falling through the cracks. Who knows how many other limited English-speaking patients fell through the cracks that weekend? The only reason the woman was able to catch me to explain her situation was that I was walking past the waiting area to get some water. Pure serendipity was the reason those specific patients left with what they needed, but patients should not rely on luck to receive their right to communicate effectively with a health professional.

David Garcia graduated from ALTA’s interpreter training as a qualified medical interpreter and is a member of Emory Volunteer Medical Interpreter Services. He currently attends Emory University, majoring in Chemistry. To read more first-hand accounts from interpreters, read Sharay and Ariana‘s stories. 

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