In 2005 while living abroad, I was the victim of an assault in which I received gunshot wounds to the wrist and the chest. While recovering, I was hospitalized for six weeks at a large teaching hospital very similar to Rush. Every morning, between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m., I was interviewed by a steady stream of students, residents, surgeons, pulmonologists, physical and occupational therapists and nurses.
I remember how difficult it was to understand and absorb all the information that I was getting from the medical team. Although I spoke Spanish well at that time, my lack of familiarity with medical terminology coupled with the seriousness of my injuries left me wishing I’d had an interpreter myself. That experience made me wonder what people in the United States with limited English proficiency (LEP) did when seeking health care. If it was difficult for me, I could only imagine how overwhelming it must be for LEP patients in the United States. A few years later, when my wife and I decided to move back to the United States, it was the memory of that experience that inspired me to pursue a career as a medical interpreter.
With our Interpreter Services Department’s 10th anniversary approaching in November, I have been reflecting on my decision to change careers in my late 30s. It feels good to have a job that assists an otherwise underserved community. LEP patients at Rush University Medical Center are fortunate to have access to professionally trained interpreters to aid them in comprehending complex medical information in a way that allows them to participate in their own care. Not only, I believe, is it a good and ethical thing to provide such services, but it is also good for business. In the five years that I have been at Rush, countless patients have confided in me that they choose our medical center over others simply because they know they will be able to communicate clearly with their health care providers. Also, more and more research shows that the use of an interpreter in health care is far more likely to lead to positive health outcomes for patients.
To be sure, a 10th anniversary is a cause for celebration, but also an opportunity to assess our current performance while still looking toward the future. We are constantly working to improve the services that we offer. We have, for example, recently added new staff to our department, and we have installed dual-handset interpreter phones in several departments. We have been working with clinics throughout the Medical Center to find ways to better indentify patients in need of our services by capturing key demographic data, and there are future plans to install a video remote interpreter service in some departments so a live interpreter can be accessed almost instantaneously by using a special video monitor.
Additionally, all Rush interpreters are currently in the process of taking board exams to receive the highest certification available to medical interpreters in the United States. As the population of LEP patients grows, more and more hospitals are beginning to create interpreter service departments. Not unlike other professions in the health care field, as more medical interpreters enter the workforce, there is an increasing need to verify the qualifications of medical interpreters. This would help to ensure good outcomes for patients while reducing lawsuits against hospitals. Until recently, however, there was no national certification available. A new certification process is now being offered by the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters. It consists of a rigorous, two-part exam, both written and oral. Ours is the first medical center in Illinois to make national certification mandatory for all staff interpreters.
Though Rush is far removed from the days when untrained staff, family members or any other available bilingual person would be used to interpret, we won’t rest on our laurels! We want to hear from Rush providers and patients. As we mark our 10th anniversary, please help us to celebrate by letting us know how we can better serve you.
Ricardo Kirgan is lead language interpreter at Rush University Medical Center.