Care lost in translation

Medical interpreters in short supply as health coverage grows

By John M. Gonzales, CHCF Center for Health Reporting

April 26, 2015 Updated: April 26, 2015 11:23pm

Vietnamese interpreter Siu Williams and her fellow linguists are in such demand at Stanford Hospital that the sprawling campus has become like a trampoline and the hallways like treadmills.

“We bounce from one building to another building. Sometimes at the main hospital, we run,” said Williams, describing a typical day helping a blur of limited-English-speaking patients at the medical center communicate with health care providers. “At the end of the shift, I don’t need to go to the fitness club.”

When it comes to one of California’s most overlooked medical needs Williams is essential — and perilously rare.

She is among only 738 certified medical interpreters in the state just when federal health reform has extended coverage to 1.7 million Californians with limited English skills. Overall, 6.8 million Californians — 20 percent of the state’s potential patient population — aren’t proficient in English, according to the 2010 census.

Both federal and state law make access to a medical interpreter the right of all patients who need one, just like the courts must offer an interpreter to a witness or defendant in need. But unlike the uniform qualifications required to become a court interpreter, California law doesn’t say how qualified medical interpreters must be.

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This article is published on the San Francisco Chronicles