Focus on Diversity

Culturally Sensitive Care

Medical interpreters help bridge communication gaps, improve outcomes

Effective communication between clinicians and patients is essential to achieving the best possible outcomes. In serving patients from diverse backgrounds, overcoming communication barriers is vital to providing comfort, assurance, and clarity in making choices about one’s health.

“Understanding medical language can be difficult, even if you speak perfect English,” says Shari Gold-Gomez, Director of Interpreter Services at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). “Imagine what it’s like for someone who speaks very little English or none at all.”

The BIDMC Interpreter Services Department, which facilitates upwards of 299,000 in-person, video, and telephone encounters with patients annually, is there to ensure that nothing ever gets lost in translation. Comprising 50 professional medical interpreters and 50 per diem interpreters, the department collectively supports more than 70 different languages; their services are available 24/7 and offered at no cost to patients.

“Interpreters are important members of the healthcare team,” adds Gold-Gomez. “If a patient doesn’t understand their diagnosis, test results, treatment plan, or medications, their visit with a physician isn’t likely to lead to the intended results.”

In addition to providing accurate and informed language services, interpreters often serve as cultural liaisons between ethnically diverse patients and the medical staff. This can be particularly beneficial to individuals from underserved patient populations who may have difficulty accessing services and navigating the healthcare system.

A group of BIDMC medical interpreters gather on the hospital’s East Campus

Growing Demand, Innovative Solutions

Over the past decade, BIDMC has seen a 70 percent increase in demand for interpreters as patient volume has grown and become more diverse. The pandemic has also added a new layer of complexity to how interpreters can interact with patients and clinicians.

The addition of new mobile technology has helped Interpreter Services to expand capacity while still working closely with patients and families. “Thanks to philanthropic support, we were able to purchase iPads for our department, which have helped us keep up with the demand and also improve our overall efficiency,” says Gold-Gomez.

These video-enabled devices have reduced the downtime between cases, allowing the interpreters to be more available and respond more quickly when needed. Since the pandemic started, the iPads have also helped Interpreter Services adopt a hybrid model to bolster efficiency, with staff working both remotely and on-site. The average response time for an interpreter has decreased from an average of 18 minutes in 2019 to under 4 minutes in 2022.

Barry Rosenblum, DPM, Associate Chief of the Division of Podiatry at BIDMC, understands the value of interpreters in his own practice and applauds the new delivery model. “I have always loved having interpreters right in the room with me, but the iPads have been a great addition,” says Rosenblum. “Patients and families still feel the same personal connection using video conferencing, and the interpreters are more readily available and require less travel and wait time.”

Committed to Healthcare Equity

In addition to their linguistic expertise and deep knowledge of medical terminology, the members of the Interpreter Services team share a common commitment to ensuring that all limited-English speaking patients have equal access to respectful, culturally sensitive healthcare. For many, it’s a calling.

“As an interpreter at BIDMC, I have the opportunity to help Spanish-speaking patients navigate the system and access the care they need and deserve,” says certified interpreter Marie Rodriguez. “It’s a privilege to help them communicate with providers in their native language and improve their outcomes.”

Her colleague Stephanie Wang, a certified Mandarin Chinese interpreter, echoes these sentiments. “Every day is a new opportunity to have a positive impact on a patient’s life and contribute to BIDMC’s culturally competent and inclusive care,” says Wang. “I find my job deeply fulfilling.”