BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Chicago Sun-Times Columnist
Being bilingual is a blessing -- except when it's a curse. Imagine you're a family member of a recent immigrant or a deaf person who communicates only by sign language.
You're tagging along with mom, dad or grandma on a doctor's visit and the next thing you know you're called into an exam room to help explain to your loved one that there's something wrong. Never mind if the illness is of a personal nature or if it's heart-breaking or scary, you are duty-bound to be an intermediary in a delicate, complex medical conversation.
This happens all the time. Our medical centers are challenged by increasing numbers of patients whose English is not as good as their native language and by a shortage of trained medical interpreters.
Over the years, health-care providers have had to learn to handle patient issues with increased privacy and proper respect, but those efforts often sputter when there is no affordable professional available to translate.
Technology is stepping in, providing medical centers with highly trained medical interpreters 24 hours a day through the Video Interpreter Network, a national program being piloted in Chicago hospitals. Medical interpreters can be dialed up on a computer monitor to speak face to face with a patient and his doctor.
"Five of our member hospitals in the Chicago area have these systems up and running and the Network is in use nationally in hospitals in California, Texas, Washington, D.C., and New Mexico," said Dr. Michael Wahl, director of the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council, which is helping 244 member and associate Illinois hospitals to learn and use the new technology.
"We estimate that nationally 10 percent of patients have low English proficiency. In Chicago it's about 15 percent, and you can imagine how difficult it is for health-care providers to deliver services in a compassionate, efficient way," Wahl told me. We talked the day before hospital administrators from across the state were to gather at the University of Illinois Medical Center to learn how the video link works.
Health-care facilities have relied on costly in-person medical interpreters who are fluent in a select few languages. Some interpreters use phone services, which can be cheaper but -- depending of the language -- still run as high as $3 a minute.
After the expense of buying and installing equipment, the Video Interpreter Network costs about 80 cents a minute.
"We can't charge Medicare or an insurance company more for patients who require translation, so it's really on the hospital's dime," Wahl said. "But we can't provide quality care if we can't speak with the patients."
Wahl estimated that nonprofit hospitals in Illinois spent more than $14 million on medical interpretation services in 2008, a financial burden that smaller suburban and rural hospitals -- where immigrants increasingly are showing up -- are finding especially tough. The alternative in a pinch, now frowned upon by hospitals, is to use untrained translators such as family members, children and non-professional hospital employees.
Dr. Ervin Hire, a medical oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, which started using the Video Interpretation Network in 2008, says he likes that the system allows family members to be just that: family.
"Sometimes we have bad news to tell patients and you start speaking about end-of-life issues. Is the granddaughter capable of speaking about these emotional topics? Is she telling the patient what I said correctly?" Hire said. "With an interpreter, I know what I'm saying is being communicated properly, and that's helpful for the whole family."