County may mimic hospital interpreters

In a typical day, Fernando Ibanez enables as many as 35 English-speaking doctors to communicate with their Spanish-speaking patients across the state.

Ibanez watches the eyes of the doctors and the body language of the patients to make sure everyone is on the same page — without ever leaving his office at San Mateo Medical Center.

San Mateo County supervisors recently voted to explore implementing a network of interpreters in other county departments, potentially serving crime victims contacted by sheriff’s deputies or defendants in the criminal-justice system.

Supervisor Jerry Hill, who proposed expanding the system to emergency first responders, said it would be critical to the safety of domestic-violence victims in particular. More than 30 languages and dialects are spoken in the county, and crime victims often must have family members translate for them.

San Mateo Medical Center is one of five California county hospitals that make up the Health Care Interpreter Network, a system of shared remote services started in 2006 with hospitals in San Mateo, San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties.

It has tripled the number of clients each hospital interpreter can serve, San Mateo Medical Center CEO Sang-Ick Chang said.

Doctors can request an interpreter’s services on the spot via computer, Chang said. The network searches for a translator inside the hospital, then within the network. Within minutes, a translator is serving both doctor and patient remotely, using equipment outfitted for high-quality audio and video. All parties use flat-screen TVs and cameras to communicate.

Hill says the program is a blueprint for developing a similar service for other county departments.

“It seems we have a duty and responsibility to implement this elsewhere,” he said. “The personal safety of our citizens demands it.”

The investigation into providing the service to other county departments and agencies will begin immediately. Its recommendations will come back to supervisors before the final budget in September.

tbarak@sfexaminer.com

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