Medical interpreters do more than just translate words

Aug. 16, 2022
Liz Lubelski, a medical interpreter with UCHealth, interprets at a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Coors Field. Photo: UCHealth.
Liz Lubelski, a medical interpreter with UCHealth, interprets at a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Coors Field. Photo: Cyrus McCrimmon, for UCHealth.

By Virginia Ovejero, for UCHealth

When the phone rings, medical interpreter Liz Lubelski never knows if she’ll be dealing with a tragedy or a joyful occasion.

During the early days of the pandemic, she interpreted for a wife and daughter who had to say goodbye to a loved one who died of COVID-19.

Other times, she gets to assist Spanish speakers when they give birth.

No matter what kind of medical situation she assists with, Lubelski feels lucky to support Spanish-speaking patients at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

Medical interpreters at UCHealth

All patients who speak a language other than English can access interpreters during visits at UCHealth hospitals and clinics.

Every year, UCHealth provides interpreters to over 400,000 patients. Two-thirds of those patients are Spanish-speaking. When patients indicate that they speak a language other than English, they automatically get paired with an interpreter. If they arrive at an appointment and don’t have help, they can always say they don’t speak English and can request an interpreter.

Lubelski, herself, grew up speaking Spanish. Her mom was a migrant worker from Mexico, who picked oranges in Riverside, California, where Lubelski was born.

The family later moved to Colorado and Lubelski remembers how it felt not to speak a word of English on her first day of kindergarten.

Interpreters helped her succeed in school. Now she’s paying it forward and is working her dream job as she assists Spanish-speaking patients.

“I know how hard it is to navigate day to day. Health care is already difficult. Imagine not being able to speak English. It makes it doubly hard,” Liz said.

A communication bridge between patients and health care providers

Medical interpreters don’t just translate words. Rather, they help medical providers understand a patient’s background and culture in additional to their health issues.

“We’re here to help Spanish-speaking patients fully participate in their treatment and decisions about their health and to make sure that everything UCHealth offers is accessible to them,” said Scott Suckow, UCHealth’s director of Language and Cultural Services.

He oversees more than 60 medical interpreters on staff along with several hundred agency interpreters who support patients with in-person visits.

On top of these qualified medical interpreters, providers can also tap assistance through iPads and telephones that connect patients to a network of about 19,000 on-demand interpreters, about 13,000 of whom speak Spanish. Altogether, medical interpreters can provide help in 350 languages.

“We provide around-the-clock coverage,” said Suckow. “It takes about 15 seconds to get an interpreter on the phone or on an iPad.”

Understanding medical terminology, information

Suckow served in the military as a health care administrator and while serving overseas, worked closely with medical interpreters in places like Iraq, Kyrgyzstan and Kuwait. Back in college, he studied foreign languages and always has had a passion for learning about other languages and cultures. He, himself, speaks French, Italian and some Spanish.

Along with medical interpreters, UCHealth has several hundred staff members and medical providers who speak Spanish and other languages.

“Connecting with a patient in Spanish, or their native language, allows health care experts to get a fuller picture of what’s going on with a patient,” Suckow said.

That’s why he and his team members work to make it easy and seamless for patients to access help from interpreters like Lubelski.

“If your preferred language is Spanish, or any other language aside from English, UCHealth clinics and hospitals will provide interpreters throughout your care,” Suckow said. “If for some reason, you don’t automatically receive help, you can simply say, ‘I don’t speak English’ when you check in.”

Interpretation skills from around the globe

Suckow is proud of the diverse team of interpreters.

“Our team is comprised of medical professionals who hail from all over Latin American, Europe and the U.S. They are very passionate about bridging cultural divides and making sure health care works for patients who don’t speak English,” Suckow said.

About 22% of Coloradans are Hispanic. That share is expected to grow to 30% in the next 20 years. While many Hispanics speak English, some might have friends or relatives who would like to receive help in Spanish.

Also, it’s common for immigrants or first-generation residents to rely on children to translate for them. Suckow said health experts never allow that.

“Children don’t have the medical background or the objectivity to interpret for a parent,” Suckow said.

Interpretive services can be provided in person, via telephone or by video. Interpreters are even available for telehealth visits.

About 70% of requests for interpreters in Colorado are for Spanish. Patients also request help with interpretation in Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, Arabic, Mandarin, Nepali and many other languages.

Medical interpreter training

All interpreters must pass rigorous tests before they can work with patients. And, by law, they must abide by HIPAA patient privacy rules.

Many Spanish speakers may wonder how much they have to pay to receive this help. It’s actually free to patients.

“All medical organizations that receive some type of federal funding provide interpretation services at no cost and with no regard to a patient’s immigration status,” Suckow said.

For interpreters like Liz, kindness and respect are the cornerstones of medical interpretation.

“It’s important for people to know that they are not a burden. It might be my job to be with them. But, I’m not just working. I respect them as human beings.

“It’s already hard to be in another country. Sometimes people are shunned. If they don’t speak the language, they feel like they don’t have access to certain things.”

Liz makes sure everyone knows that they belong at the hospital.

“They are not alone.”