Any tourist knows that speaking a second language improves the odds of getting
what you want at a restaurant, shop or train station.
It's the same for a hospital or health clinic, only the stakes are higher.
Medical diagnoses are based on detailed information about symptoms, medical
history and lifestyle - things for which the patient is usually the best
Not getting that information impairs a doctor's ability to treat a patient.
Not being able to talk with the doctor increases the patient's natural anxiety
about visiting the doctor.
At Scottsdale Healthcare's two hospitals, a team of 13 interpreters and two
translators is bridging the language gap. They work in a program that focuses
on Spanish, the primary language of area non-English speakers. It's called
Interpretation and Translation Services.
For patients who speak neither Spanish nor English, there's Cyracom, a widely
used clinical phone service in which a code is punched in and an appropriate
interpreter comes on the line. The ITS program's Spanish translators,
professional linguists with masters degrees, prepare written materials, such
as medical forms and brochures for Spanish speakers and generally have no
But the interpreters - available all day, every day - work directly with
patients and their doctors, serving 350 Spanish-speaking patients a week.
"As someone who was a monolingual person, I know how scary it can be," said
program administrator Rose Thumann, 26, who came to the United States from
Chile at age 7, knowing no English. Now Thumann's interpreting duties often
involve small children in similar straits.
How interpreters work
Interpreters are staffed in the emergency department at Scottsdale
Healthcare's Osborn campus and are on-call at the Shea Boulevard campus.
Most of their work is done in the emergency and obstetrics departments, and in
the Heuser Family Practice clinic near Scottsdale Healthcare's Osborn
One recent day, interpreter Michael Federico was on duty at the family
Born in Yuma to Mexican immigrants, Federico, 26, grew up straddling the
border. He learned English as a second language in a Los Angeles grade school.
His mother recently retired as a schoolteacher in Baja California.
Federico, on the job for two years, relishes his job.
"You can see it in their faces. They light up when they see someone is there
who understands them," he said of the patients.
The idea is for the interpreter to be transparent. But Maria Salgado, 52, of
Scottsdale, had seen Federico three times in September, and she beamed like a
friend when she spotted him entering the examining room.
"I like him. He's very friendly and very good in medical terms," she said.
Family physician Kim Olson Gibbs speaks only high school Spanish. But medical
Spanish demands more, so she relies on interpreters.
The process looked a little like a comedy sketch.
Olson Gibbs turned to speak directly to Salgado. "Your medication from Mexico
- how were you supposed to take it?"
Federico, in deep concentration, his hands folded over his belt-buckle,
rattled it off in Spanish. Salgado, who's being treated for arthritis,
responded in Spanish to Olson Gibbs, but her words instantly fed into Federico
and out in English.
The doctor examined Salgado's knees, saying, "I'll start with the left knee."
Salgado laughed, said something and Federico relayed, "Good, that's the good
one!" All three laughed.
Olson Gibbs poked the other knee and Salgado winced and said something. But
there was no need to wait for a translation.
Federico is taking a semester off from his studies at Mesa Community
Only a high school degree is required to be an interpreter, but candidates are
tested and those who make the cut receive special training.
Candidates learn to triage patients, the way nurses do, to determine who needs
"Trauma always comes first. The rest is mostly common sense," Thumann said.
Interpreters also attend a 16-week training regimen that introduces them to
proper medical terms and their meanings. The course work covers basic anatomy
and complicated medical terminology, so staff can understand what the doctors
are saying and put it into Spanish.
"Arizona doesn't require certification, but California does," Thumann said.
Scottsdale Healthcare has developed its own certification process, in
anticipation that Arizona one day will require certification for medical
Reach the reporter at
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