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Hearing that you have a terrible disease is hard enough. Now imagine getting the bad news in a language you don’t speak.
Capital Region hospitals overcome language barriers by using special telephones to connect patients and their medical providers with an off-site language interpreter. In 2009, local hospitals called on telephone interpreters more than 5,500 times.

Soon, there will be a new option in town.

A nonprofit group that trains interpreters opened an office in Albany last month and hopes to build a cadre of medical interpreters who will be available for on-site and in-person language interpretation. Professional on-site interpreters are the gold standard, said Dina Refki, executive director of the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society at the University at Albany.

“When you don’t have effective communication between the patient and provider, you have all sorts of problems,” said Refki. “You have errors in the diagnosis, you have costly and unnecessary use of diagnostic tests, patient dissatisfaction and medical liability when errors are made.”
More than 22,000 people with limited English skills live in the four counties in the Capital Region, according to census data. The most common foreign language is Spanish, but there are many requests for Burmese, Russian and Arabic.
Hospitals and large medical providers have done an excellent job in providing interpretation services since a 2006 state law went into effect, Refki said. Some hospitals, like Albany Medical Center, also have video services to communicate through sign language with hearing-impaired patients.
New York hospitals are not reimbursed for language services at this time, but Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chairman of the Assembly’s health committee, has submitted a bill that would provide Medicaid reimbursement for interpretation.
Telephone interpretation is the primary method used by the hospitals because it’s cost-effective and offers professional interpretation in 150 different languages. The phones have two headsets allowing the patient and provider to talk with the interpreter. The service costs anywhere from $1 to $7 a minute or more, depending on subscription level.
Angela Keller, executive director of Catholic Charities AIDS Services, said some patients don’t like it.
“They were really uncomfortable with this stranger on the other end of the phone translating for them,” Keller said.
Catholic Charities recently won a grant to pay for in-person interpretation during medical appointments for its clients. But the group couldn’t find interpreters to hire. So Keller helped convince MAMI Interpreters, formerly known as the Multicultural Association of Medical Interpreters, to open an office in the area.
MAMI, based in Utica, has trained more than 400 medical interpreters since it was founded in 1998. MAMI opened an office is Syracuse six years ago at the request of several hospitals. Central New York hospitals now have 15 interpreters on staff and more than 100 other interpreters available to accompany patients to scheduled medical appointments, or respond to emergency calls for language services.
Charles Clute, director of patient relations and language assistant coordinator at Albany Medical Center, said the in-person interpretation is helpful in some situations, particularly when communicating with family members. The hospital already calls on bilingual medical students who have volunteered to interpret, but Clute didn’t rule out using MAMI interpreters.
“We are open to whatever it takes to get our patients good communication,” he said.
Cornelia Brown, founder of MAMI, said she believes that the medical institutions in the Capital Region will see the value of on-site interpretation, and demand for interpreters will grow. The training program is 80 hours and classes are held on weekends at their 33 Central Ave. office. “We anticipate, with time, there will be work for people,” Brown said.

Interpreter requests at hospitals

Hospitals are required by law to offer language interpretation to patients who don’t understand English. Here’s a look at the number of language requests in the Capital Region. The information was supplied by the hospitals.
Albany Medical Center 3,270 Spanish, Burmese, Arabic, French, Vietnamese
Albany Memorial Hospital 336 Spanish, Burmese
Ellis Medicine 1400 Spanish, American Sign Language, Arabic
Glens Falls Hospital 21 Spanish
Samaritan Hospital 169 Spanish, Russian
Saratoga Hospital 219 Spanish, Mandarin
Seton Health/St. Mary’s 88 Spanish, Arabic, Urdu, Haitian Creole
St. Peter’s Hospital 550 Spanish, Burmese, Russian and Arabic
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