Agencies begin training medical interpreters

HENRIETTA — Two agencies have joined efforts to train medical interpreters and improve language services for the Latino community.


Ibero-American Action League and Lifetime Care of Rochester began a five-week training program for 11 participants last month. Once the participants complete the 40-hour program, each will receive a certificate and will work on a per-diem basis, explained Elisa DeJesus, Ibero’s vice president of family services.

Eventually, the agency would like to create a pool of interpreters and enter into contracts with large health centers in Rochester, such as the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), to utilize these new interpreters, DeJesus added.

"We don’t have enough medical professionals yet who are bilingual," she said. "And hospitals don’t have enough interpreters."

Local hospitals have responded in a variety of ways to meet the growing demand for interpreters — not only for Latinos, but for the many refugees who settle in the area. Rochester General Hospital offers such options as phone translation through interpreters from Catholic Family Center, a video service, and a remote simultaneous translation through headphones worn by the doctor and the patient, which follows the model used by the United Nations. URMC has full- and part-time Spanish interpreters available as well as on-call staff during overnight hours and on weekends, said Elizabeth Ballard, manager of interpreter services. The hospital also offers free language- and cultural-services training and tuition assistance for staff to take courses at the university, she added. Additionally, she noted, URMC is currently exploring a new certification program for interpreters.

The feedback that Ibero hears, however, is that more interpreters are needed because patients do not feel comfortable with the phone translation method in particular, DeJesus explained. Such reluctance could have a negative impact on a patient’s health condition, she commented.

"Many people don’t want to go to their appointments if they don’t have an interpreter," she noted.

While Ibero had been considering the idea of offering a medical interpreter program for many years, a couple of years ago the agency began serious talks with Lifetime and Syracuse’s Spanish Action League of Onondaga County, also known as La Liga. Lifetime is providing the space for the classes, and Priscilla Santana from La Liga is conducting the training. The Syracuse agency has offered a similar program for about 12 years, Santana noted, and has trained more than 300 people in that time.

La Liga has contracts with hospitals, private medical insurance companies and clinics in the central New York area to provide the services of those trained interpreters, added Rita Paniagua, the agency’s executive director. The services are provided to the patients for free.

Ibero and Lifetime created awareness of Rochester’s new interpreter training program through fliers and word-of-mouth and received nearly 20 applicants, explained DeJesus and Alfredo González, Lifetime’s cultural diversity manager. Applicants were required to be bilingual and to have attended at least one year of college, they added. The participants also took a pre-test and had to have a minimum understanding of medical terminology to qualify for the training sessions, Santana explained.

During a training session on Sept. 17, Santana walked the class of 11 participants through a review of common medical terms such as blister, bruise, rash and flu. The Spanish translation for a phrase such as "bloody nose" stumped everyone in the room. More often, a lively discussion would ensue on the different meanings — depending on what Latin American country one was from — for what would seem like an innocuous word such as rash.

When "un rash," was shouted out, Santana shook her head.

"This is not Spanglish class," Santana reminded them. "It’s all Spanish. Or all English."

González explained that the program’s $520 registration fee includes copies of all the materials reviewed. Participants also receive a Spanish-English medical dictionary — which includes references to cultural differences in meanings for certain words — to have with them at all times, he added.

For Raquel Quiñones, the training is the first step to a second career. The Puerto Rico native recently retired after working 40 years as an administrative assistant at SUNY Brockport.

"I want to serve the community," Quiñones said. "In the area where I live, a lot of people don’t speak English. I want to be able to help them."

She said that Ibero offers many useful services to Latinos. This interpreter program is especially important, as too often relatives fill this role for many families and those casual interpreters usually are not familiar with all the terms they should be, Quiñones added.

"This program is a very welcome addition," she remarked.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about the medical interpreter program, call Ibero-American Action League at 585-256-8900.

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