Patients no longer lost in translation

The half-hour long wait for a translator is over for many non-English speakers at the county’s publicly funded hospital, thanks to a new video-interpreter network.

With the push of a button, doctors can now tap live interpreters who speak a handful of languages — including Cambodian, Hindi, Hmong, Spanish and Tongan — on portable video monitors at three Northern Californiahospitals. The average wait for an interpreter is less than one minute, a dramatic reduction from what used to be 15 to 30 minutes, according to San Mateo Medical Center spokesman Dave Hook. More languages are available through a separate voice-only interpreter line, Hook said.

The system, which the Medical Center plans to roll out to the public today with the help of its partner hospitals, San Joaquin General, Contra Costa Regional and Cisco Systems, will help improve patient care and comfort while reducing the likelihood of medical errors, officials said.

An estimated 35 percent, or about 23,400, of the Medical Center’s annual patients speak a language other than English and that number is growing, Hook said. The problem has reached the point that new state legislation — soon to be implemented — requires medical insurers to guarantee interpreters at their member hospitals. About 51 percent of California hospital patients who required translation did not receive it, according to a 2004 study of 200 state hospitals.

At the same time, several cases of medical errors have made headlines across the nation in recent months as a result of untrained people misinterpreting medical information, Hook said. “We often relied on family members to translate [in the past], but that’s different than medical interpretation,” said Medical Center CEO Nancy Steiger.

In one example of a near-miss, a patient came to an appointment with two bottles of the same medicine, which they were taking as if they were separate medicines, said Dr. Ranjana Sood, of the Medical Center. “They actually were not very literate in reading the bottles, so they were taking an overdosage,” Sood said.

Sood showed the two bottles to the video interpreter, asking them to have the patient discontinue the double doses.

“That was a very important error that got caught because of this system,” she said.

In addition tothe benefit of safer treatment, the per-minute cost of the video network is about one-third that of a comparable telephone interpretive service, which can be as high as $4 a minute, Hook said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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