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The Language Divide: Will Elderly U.S. Latinos Get Proper Health Care?

Spanish medical interpretation can mean the difference between good and bad patient care for millions of Americans.

According to a 2005 study conducted by the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, the number of elderly Latinos in the U.S. will climb to 13.8 million by 2050. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Latinos 65 years and older are projected to outnumber all other elderly minorities by 1 million as soon as 2030. In addition, Latinos have lower mortality rates than non-Hispanic whites in the 65-and-older age bracket. All of this adds up to a potential patient care crisis that can be avoided with proper language services.

There will surely be an influx of elderly Latinos that need health care in the coming decades, and in many cases, there will be a language divide between those patients and their care givers. In such cases, Spanish medical interpreters will serve a vital role. While family members could interpret for some patients during medical examination or hospital stays, in most cases, being somewhat bilingual is simply not enough. Who would you trust to help care for your family member?

Proper Spanish interpretation requires a firm grasp of two different and complex languages, and also the ability to communicate effectively in each language, sometimes in moments of great stress. Also, medical interpreting is always bicultural, not just bilingual.

Spanish word meanings can vary by region or context. For example, the word ‘ahora’ means ‘now’ in some Spanish cultures, but in Mexico, it signifies ‘in a little while.’ The word ‘now’ in Mexico is ‘ahorita.’ This seemingly small difference can create a serious problem for a patient if he is requesting a beadpan and the caregiver is getting the alternative meaning.

Someone who has taken brief courses in Spanish, or who was merely raised in a bilingual household probably does not have the linguistic and cultural knowledge to provide adequate medical interpretation. It takes specific training, and consistent testing to aquire the necessary linguistic and cultural skills. Since inadequate medical interpretation can lead to improper patient care, and millions of Americans could be affected, the issue is of great importance.

To learn more about Language Training and Testing programs offered by ALTA Language Services, call us at 404.920.3800.

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