Communication in the doctor’s office is key, yet language barriers can lead to health disparities. With a deficit of interpreters across the country, new programs are training and certifying medical students to bridge the gap.
Nearly half of Spanish speakers say that they speak English less than “very well,” yet the number of professional interpreters in the medical field is low. The author of this study, Gabriela Aitkin, a fourth-year medical student at Loyola University, Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois, used California as an example. For the nearly 2 million people in the state who have trouble speaking English, there are only approximately 700 interpreters.
“Studies document that patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) often defer needed medical care; are at higher risk of leaving the hospital against medical advice; are less likely to have a regular health care professional; and are more likely to miss follow-up appointments, to be nonadherent with medications, and to be in fair or poor health,” said Ms Aitkin.
Ms Aitkin’s article in the AMA Journal of Ethics, “Medical Students as Certified Interpreters,” detailed the interpreter certification Loyola University developed for first- and second-year medical students fluent in Spanish.
Loyola University noticed that their clinic needed more interpreters, particularly ones who could work onsite. The training program for medical students has already made a difference in practice, with students volunteering >500 hours with hundreds of Spanish-speaking patients.
The program provided more certified interpreters for the clinic, and it gave medical students a chance to take part in a clinical setting early on in their schooling. One challenge for students Ms Aitken pointed out was the need to keep their medical expertise out of the interpretation conversation. Interpretation must capture exactly what the patient and doctor say, and if it does not, the medical organization can be held liable for any damage to the patient. This potential conflict, however, likely doesn’t outweigh the need for interpretation services.
“The need to provide quality patient care must be balanced against the risks of volunteer interpreters applying their clinical training to the detriment of their interpreter role,” said Ms Aitkin.
When professional interpreters are in the room, they directly improve the health of people with LEP. Schools and other healthcare organizations have the opportunity to address the shortage and increase access to lifesaving services for people with LEP across the country.
Aitkin G. Medical students as certified interpreters. AMA J Ethics. 2019;21:E232-E238.