Hospitals turn to technology to tear down language barriers with patients
Linda Dougan used to rely on interpreters in Erie to come to St. Vincent Hospital to help immigrants with limited English understand a doctor's orders.
Even if she needed the interpreter for only a five-minute conversation, she was billed a one- or two-hour minimum charge.
“We were just about to spend $500,000 on interpretation in 2011 when we said, ‘We need to find a better way,' ” said Dougan, director of patient relations and language services at the Allegheny Health Network hospital.
Dougan turned to a telephone service in 2012 that provides interpreters in more than 200 languages at the push of a button. They bill by the minute.
“We probably reduced our costs by 70 percent by utilizing telephonic interpreters,” she said.
Hospitals across the country are experiencing growing demand for medical interpreters as the population of people with limited English language skills increases. To meet demand, medical centers are relying more on technology than in-person interpreters.
At UPMC Hamot in Erie, Amy Bizzarro noticed a dramatic increase in the need for interpreters, especially for refugees who speak Nepalese. A federal refugee resettlement program worked with several agencies in Erie in recent years to relocate people from the landlocked Himalayan country of Bhutan, where government oppression drove certain ethnic groups to flee.
UPMC Hamot saved money by using a telephone service to interpret for patients, Bizzarro said.
“You pay for just the services that you're using,” she said. “It's very efficient.”
Across UPMC's 22 hospitals, use of interpretation services jumped 24 percent in the past year, spokeswoman Wendy Zellner said.
St. Vincent and UPMC use a service from Tucson-based CyraCom, the largest provider of telephone interpretation services in the United States.
As immigration to America increased in recent decades, so, too, did the number of people who primarily speak a foreign language, according to the Census Bureau. In 1980, 11 percent of the population, or 23.1 million people, spoke a language other than English at home. By 2010, that number had reached 20.6 percent, or 59.5 million.
The number of people in the United States with limited English proficiency is estimated at about 25 million, up 80 percent from 1980, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington nonprofit.
It's a trend that's driving the growth of translation and interpreting services and technology. That global industry was valued at $37 billion last year and is expected to grow at 6 percent a year, according to Common Sense Advisory, a Cambridge, Mass., market research firm.
Though much of the money spent on interpretation goes to telephonic services, the proliferation of Internet chat technology and mobile devices is beginning to take the service to video.
Wendy Fleming runs a project at Forbes Hospital in Monroeville that is testing an Apple iPad to connect patients with interpreters.
“You actually see someone speaking to you in your language,” said Fleming, director of clinical resource management. “It's more direct communication.”That's useful in providing service to people who are deaf and use American Sign Language, she said. Paying a sign language interpreter to come to the hospital carried a two-hour minimum charge of $60 to $70 an hour. The iPad service, from a California company called LanguageLine Solutions, charges $3.35 a minute.
Patients and staff at Forbes speak positively about the 2-month-old trial, Fleming said. She expects Allegheny Health Network to expand the technology to more hospitals.
“We've had fabulous feedback from sign language patients,” she said.
Alex Nixon is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7928 or email@example.com.