When patients in Henderson and Transylvania Counties tell doctors where it hurts next year, their spoken language won't cause additional harm or discomfort.
For patients who are already suffering, “Having a language barrier and being forced to get a community member or family member to talk for you puts your health information out there for everybody to see," says Mary Jo Dukas, program coordinator of the WNC Interpreter Network.
It’s common for family members to serve as translators in many situations, she explains, adding, "Whenever you make a doctors appointment, they're going to ask about your symptoms. But what if you think you're pregnant? You may not want to say that in front of your child or in front of your partner. You don't want your neighbor to know before you husband does, so it puts you in a really vulnerable position."
To help these patients, the Western Carolina Medical Society launched WNC Interpreter Network in 2005, and it’s currently active in five counties (Buncombe, Yancey, Madison, Mitchell and McDowell). The network features more than 50 professionals who can interpret more than 20 languages, including American Sign Language. But those numbers could grow. Recently, the medical society received $20,000 grant to expand into Henderson and Transylvania County.
"Further expansion into the rural communities of WNC will serve the estimated 10,000 year-round Latino population in Henderson County, which swells to as many as 20,000 during harvest season, and 1,000 Latinos in Transylvania County, in addition to the larger [Limited English Proficiency] community," says WCMS Executive Director Miriam Schwartz.
Dukas says the network will be looking for interpreters who are already working in the two counties. To make sure they’re qualified, the program tests, shadows and pays interpreters as professional contractors. WIN also trains staff and doctors about how to work with interpreters. These steps are critical, Dukas says, because North Carolina does not have a certification process for interpreters or a standard of proficiency.
When doctors request an interpreter, local ones are preferred, she continues. And the network will include “interpreters who are probably not being compensated decently right now, or need to work on their skills," Dukas says.
She further notes the difference between growing up bilingual, taking college language courses and being an interpreter. "Being bilingual doesn’t automatically make a person a good interpreter or qualified for interpreting in medical situations,” says Dukas. “Interpreting is a difficult skill that requires the development of a talent that not everyone has, as well as the acquisition of extensive knowledge and vocabulary."
To keep prices low for doctors in these medical environments, WIN charges doctors $45-50 for appointments that are 30 minutes or less and $75 for appointments that will last more than an hour. To Dukas, it's difficult to put a price tag on understanding.
"They're saving money in the long run because they're getting the information that they need up front. They're having good communication with their patient, and the best profit is having quality communication with their patient," she explains.
When patients make appointments, they can ask their doctor for an interpreter and will not have to worry about an additional charge for the service, Dukas mentions. Insurance companies require that doctors provide language services. Medicaid also requires qualified interpreters.
Dukas says these are facts that few people know — and it could end up saving someone's life.
"As an interpreter, you learn that doctors want to help people. Nothing hurts them more than to know that the ability to pay for a consult keeps their patients away and destroys their chances,” she says.
Going forward, education is key, Dukas continues, further emphasing, "Patients should not have to pay for interpreters. It is really important that they know that they can ask … doctor[s] for an interpreter and do not have to pay or tip the interpreter.”
She concludes, “We hope WIN can work with and teach patients, doctors and interpreters in Henderson and Transylvania Counties what professional interpreting is and the difference it can make."
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