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A look at: Language Services


Jacqueline Tornell, medical interpreter, helps psychiatrist Paul Desan, MD, communicate with a patient. Tornell is one of 36 staff members in YNHH’s Language Services Department, which handled more than 100,000 requests for interpretation and translation last year.

A hospital visit can be intimidating for anyone. Imagine if you couldn’t communicate with your doctor or nurse to describe your symptoms or explain your medical history.

Thankfully, for thousands of patients who do not speak English, Yale New Haven Hospital’s Language Services Department is one of the largest in Connecticut. The department has grown significantly since its inception in 1995. In 1997, YNHH handled about 2,000 requests for help with 26 different languages; last year, Language Services responded to more than 100,000 requests.

Eighty percent were for a Spanish-speaking interpreter; 17 percent involved approximately 50 other languages ranging from Albanian to Vietnamese; and most other requests were for deaf and hard-of-hearing assistance.

“As our patient population has become more diverse, the demand for trained, skilled interpreters to help doctors and patients communicate – and avoid potentially deadly misunderstandings – has grown exponentially,” said Angela Frentress, Language Services manager.

To handle the demand, YNHH has 30 interpreters, one translation coordinator, one medical translator for written materials, a deaf/hard-of-hearing services coordinator, two dispatchers and a department manager.

The department can also access outside agencies for interpreters. Interpreters convert spoken words from one language to another; translators convert written documents such as discharge instructions, patient education materials and hospital documents.

The job entails more than just translating a patient’s words into English.

“I interpret the Arabic of 22 different countries with 22 different dialects, and help Arabic patients make follow-up appointments and schedule tests and procedures,” said interpreter Mohamed Hegazi, who was recently named a YNHH Hero. “I also help assimilate the cultural differences patients face when they navigate the healthcare system, and serve as a reference for providers on religious and cultural matters concerning medical care.”

In-person interpreters are preferred for certain medical conversations, but new technologies are helping Language Services meet regulatory compliance requirements and increasing demand for services at the York Street, Saint Raphael and Bridgeport Hospital campuses and off-site locations.

These technologies include more than 300 “iPoles” (interpreter poles), which allow providers to quickly link with a qualified interpreter via video. Earlier this year, Language Services implemented LanguageLine to help patients who speak limited English schedule appointments through the Primary Care Centers. In addition, YNHH was the first Connecticut hospital to offer videophones for deaf and hard-of-hearing patients, and has been named a “hospital of choice” for American Sign Language.

For interpreters who provide in-person services, the work is both challenging and rewarding.

“I might be interpreting for the discharge of a newborn baby and suddenly get called to interpret for end-of-life or hospice care,” Hegazi said. “As an interpreter I have to stay neutral at all times, and it can be both challenging and emotionally draining. But being able to help and be there for our patients is very rewarding.”