No Hablar in the ER

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An agreement by two Brooklyn hospitals to provide better language assistance services for their patients has non-English speakers across the city asking, “What about us?”–and putting their own local medical centers on notice.

In early March, in response to a number of civil rights complaints from patients at Woodhull and Wyckoff Heights medical centers, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer brokered an agreement in which hospital officials said they would beef up interpreter services. The hospitals promised to designate staff to provide face-to-face interpretation, create a telephone interpreter service, translate key documents and signs, and collect data on which languages need translating.

Spitzer’s office hopes the agreement will serve as a blueprint for improvements around the state, and has circulated the terms of the deal to other hospitals.

Taking their cue, residents of Washington Heights, home to one of the city’s largest Hispanic communities, are considering filing complaints against Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, the parent hospital of Wyckoff, if officials there don’t make some changes soon. “We are trying to negotiate with them in good faith, even though it doesn’t look like they are doing much,” says Flora Huang, a Washington Heights resident and member of the Working Families Party, which took up this issue a couple of months ago.

It’s not that the hospital is without a system: According to Camille Tumolo, who started Columbia Presbyterian’s interpreter program in 1999, the hospital relies on a variety of translation services. “We rarely don’t fill a request,” Tumolo says. She does admit, though, that the “never-ending” demand for interpreters–more than 2,000 a month–has strained the hospital’s resources. Outside agencies charge at least $150 per translation, she says (but would not disclose how much the hospital has budgeted for these services). “It’s a system that works,” Tumolo says, “but we don’t get a lot of support.”

Doctors have noticed the limits. One surgeon, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he got a rude awakening during one of his first nights on call. Summoned to the ER to attend to a teenage Dominican girl suffering from abdominal pains, he had an interpreter paged. A few minutes later, he was told that no interpreters were available. He eventually grabbed a nurse who spoke some Spanish to help him attend to the sick teenager. “The reality is that you can’t deal with that system,” he says.

Patients’ way of dealing is to bring their own interpreters, often a child, says Adam Gurvitch, of the New York Immigration Coalition. To change that, the coalition is backing state legislation requiring that all hospitals provide access to interpreters and report annually on their services. Sponsored by state Assemblymember Adriano Espaillat of Washington Heights, the bill has been introduced several times in the past without any luck. But with five co-sponsors and growing support, says Espaillat aide Richard Polanco, this year could be different.

“The resources are out there,” notes Gurvitch. “It’s really a historical artifact that this is the first time this has come about. The hospitals have been in denial.”

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