Cindy Roat, a national consultant on language access in health care, was guest speaker at recent YNHH Language Celebration Day events.

Speaker discusses why clinicians should be open to interpretation

During a recent talk on language and cultural awareness in health care, Cory Walka, RN, clinical outcomes leader, Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SP 6-1 and 7-1), recalled an experience during a medical mission trip to Haiti. Walka had an interpreter ask patients if they were experiencing “belly pain” – a common question during health assessments. But Walka wasn’t getting the answers she expected, and soon learned why: in the Haitian language, the word for “belly” actually refers to the pelvic area.

Her experience and others shared during the Sept. 28 talk at Yale New Haven Hospital illustrates why specially trained medical interpreters are important to care safety and quality and the patient experience, said Cindy Roat, a national consultant on language access in health care. Roat’s talk was part of Language Celebration Day events at both campuses hosted by YNHH’s Language Services department and Diversity and Inclusion Council.

Roat cited national research showing that without qualified medical interpreters, patients experienced more medical errors while hospitalized, made more mistakes taking medications at home and were unable to identify their diagnoses.

She also emphasized the importance of having professional interpreters, versus relying on patients’ bilingual loved ones. Family members might omit critical information they don’t think their loved one should hear from healthcare providers, Roat said. Neither should healthcare organizations rely on bilingual staff members who are not trained interpreters, she said. She recalled a physician in a hospital where she worked talking with a patient in Spanish, but the rest of the care team couldn’t understand the conversation.

“Qualified interpreters aren’t just functionally bilingual, they’re highly bilingual,” Roat said. “They know how to render something in another language when there’s no direct translation.”

Trained interpreters also follow certain techniques and protocols and abide by a code of ethics and standards of practice.

Roat tied language and cultural awareness to Yale New Haven Health’s values: patient-centered care, respect, integrity, accountability and compassion. “How do we convey these values to our patients if we can’t communicate with them?” Roat asked.

The Language Celebration Day event also included the presentation of Language Services’ first Champion Awards to David Hersh, MD, PhD, Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, and Philip Meeks, MD, Anesthesiology, Saint Raphael Campus. The physicians were honored for frequently and effectively using medical interpreters in patient care, and encouraging physician colleagues to do the same.