Medical interpreters help California speak the language of care

June 28, 2016

California has taken an important step forward in increasing vital services that save lives. This week, the governor signed into law a budget that includes $3 million dollars to fund medical interpretation services for non-English speaking Medi-Cal recipients.

For several years, UDW has partnered with Interpreting for California and others to raise awareness on this issue. A lack of medical interpretation services in the state has led to unnecessary treatments, injuries, and even deaths.

Julio Perez is one Californian who knows how difficult a family crisis can become without access to a medical interpreter. When his little brother Aldo was rushed to the emergency room in Long Beach, CA, Julio was asked by medical staff to interpret in Spanish for his mother and father as his brothers’ condition became critical.

Julio was just a teenager at the time, and when his little brother died of sepsis, he felt a tremendous amount of guilt. He had struggled to understand the medical terminology, and to help his parents make informed decisions. When it came time to tell his family that Aldo had died, Julio didn’t know how to describe what had happened.

Vanna Nguyen works as her grandfather’s home care provider in Orange County. Her grandfather’s primary languages are French and Vietnamese. As his caregiver, she’s able to see to his day-to-day needs, but she worries about what would happen if he were ever admitted to a hospital or seen by a new doctor that doesn’t speak the languages her grandfather understands best. She worries that he could have trouble understanding and being understood.

“If my grandfather ever needs to go to a hospital, he should be able to understand the doctor’s plan like any other patient,” said Vanna. “And he should have an interpreter who can help him communicate his needs to the doctor as well.”

Vanna’s grandfather is not alone. An estimated one in five Californians speak English less than “very well”, and without quality interpretation in their primary language, they’re at risk of being unintentionally harmed in a place where you should get better, not worse.

“With the help of qualified medical interpreters, people like my grandfather would be able to communicate their health needs, understand their treatment plans, and avoid dangerous accidents that can arise from miscommunication,” said Vanna.

This year, UDW caregivers joined medical interpreters across California to demand action. We wrote hundreds of letters to Governor Brown asking him to create language access and access to medical interpreters in California.

Almost half of the individuals who receive Medi-Cal speak a language other than English. But qualified medical interpreters are in short supply: last year, the state had only 738 certified medical interpreters, and with millions of Californians in need, that just won’t cut it.

This budget victory means taking a step toward making sure the care of many of our neighbors, home care clients, family members, and friends doesn’t get lost in translation.

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