Whether you're undergoing a routine medical procedure or require something more involved, spending time in a hospital can be stressful. This is even more true if English isn't your first language—even for native English speakers, understanding complex medical terms can be tough when you're under stress. You may benefit from the services of a qualified medical interpreter who can translate your doctor's words into your native language to help you better understand your condition, prognosis, and treatment plan.
Read on to learn more about the public access laws governing interpretation in the medical context, as well as what you'll want to do if you'd like the services of a medical interpreter for your next hospital stay.
Do you have the right to a medical interpreter?
Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you're entitled to a medical interpreter whenever you seek healthcare treatment. In 2000, an executive order was issued requiring healthcare organizations that receive federal funds to make medical interpretation available; although there are a few private hospitals that may choose to eschew federal funds to avoid this obligation, most hospitals do offer these interpretation services.
However, finding a Somali or Urdu interpreter in a small rural county can be a challenge. Many hospitals will request that the patient bring along a friend or family member who speaks the language to help the hospital avoid the hassle of trying to find a proficient interpreter; while you can always bring along whomever you wish to an appointment or procedure, if you're not comfortable doing so, you still have the right to ask for a hospital-provided interpreter.
What should you do if you require an interpreter?
While hospitals are required to provide interpreters to patients who aren't proficient in English, there's no requirement that these interpreters have to be physically present. To provide coverage for rural counties that may not have access to all languages, many hospitals have subscribed to a "language line" service that provides telephonic interpretation—the doctor speaks into one handset to convey information to an interpreter from companies like The Language Banc, who relays it to you through your own handset.
While this approach isn't perfect, it can be a great way to improve access to translation services in areas that would otherwise be underserved. A similar approach using instant messaging has also met with success; because comprehending and translating medical information in real-time can be a tremendous challenge, even for those who are fully proficient in both languages and have some medical background, using instant messages (which allow the translator to ask for clarification on certain terms or rephrase the information to be more easily understood) can be beneficial.
If you're sure you'll need an interpreter for your next medical procedure, the key is to start preparing early. For those who speak some English, verbally asking for an interpreter and naming the language you need may be enough; but for those who speak almost no English, or whose native language is one that isn't easily conveyed in English (like Cantonese), you may want to consider printing out a piece of paper listing the language you speak and giving this to the hospital staff. This can ensure that the translator who is retained actually speaks your language and not a similar one.
You may also want to arm yourself with a copy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the executive order requiring federally-funded hospitals to provide interpreters (if you're fairly certain the hospital at which you're receiving treatment accepts federal funds). Not only can this stave off any claims that the hospital isn't required to accommodate you, it can give you the confidence to advocate for what you want—and what you're legally entitled to have.