Imagine getting sick, being diagnosed with cancer or giving birth in a country where you don’t speak the language well, if at all. That’s a reality for many Teton County residents.
A new medical interpretation nonprofit seeks to bridge that language gap and has worked quietly since September to bolster health care access for Spanish speakers.
Named La Voz, meaning “the voice” in English, the organization’s goal is to make sure the language barrier doesn’t interfere with patients’ care. La Voz is powered by five women, who all have other jobs and worked at El Puente as interpreters before it merged with the Latino Resource Center and Community Resource Center into One22.
The women are Vida Day, Irene Poodts, Marisa Santacruz, Elisabet Telecher and Meliza Wetzler. Their operating budget is slim; interpreters are paid and Day volunteers her time.
They’re already making a difference. Last month Leticia Mendoza took her son to the dentist and turned to a La Voz interpreter for help.
“I wouldn’t have been able to understand what was happening without an interpreter,” Mendoza said. “These services are very important for us, and it’s important for us to have interpreters that we trust.”
Another patient, Esmeralda Cruz, said she used an interpreter for her first visit to the doctor with her newborn.
“The interpreter helped me to be able to have good communication about some questions I had,” she said. “These services are very important for the Latino community and especially for children with parents who don’t speak English very well.”
Joining forces this fall
The impetus for La Voz, Day said, were changes to local health care access services.
One22, another nonprofit geared towards helping the Latino population, started charging providers for interpreter services that used to be free in the fall. According to One22 Executive Director Sharel Lund Love, One22 still provides services to a handful of medical, dental and auxiliary health services providers as well as social services organizations like Teton Youth and Family Services and the Community Safety Network. St. John’s Medical Center uses One22 on an as-needed basis but switched to a company called LanguageLine Solutions that includes 24/7 phone and video access to interpreters in more than 240 languages, including sign language, for their primary interpretative tool.
Rates are $50/hour for nonprofits and $60/hour for private businesses, with a minimum half-hour charge increment.
“We’ve expanded our scope beyond just medical,” Lund Love said. “We look forward to staying in the business and helping more organizations reach our Spanish-speaking population.”
Day said she saw a need when some physicians said they couldn’t pay for One22’s interpreter services.
“So we all came together and joined forces and now we provide about 50 or so hours of health care interpretation a week,” she said. “One of the most important aspects of the service is that its open 100 percent to patients, so you don’t have to be seeking care in a particular clinic or from a particular physician in a particular facility.”
Donations from health care providers, patients and the public primarily fund La Voz.
Patients can’t be charged for needing interpretation services because then they would be paying more for the same service than an English speaker. That would be discrimination on the basis of national origin because of a primary language other than English, which is prohibited in Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Department of Health and Human Services guidance says limited English proficient patients are entitled to timely, competent interpretation in health care settings, free of charge.
La Voz’s interpreters are all experienced Spanish speakers. Poodts and Telecher are from Argentina, Santacruz is from Mexico and Wetzler began learning Spanish as a Peace Corps member in Panama. Many of the women have firsthand experience with the need for medical interpretation.
For example, Telecher’s brother became sick when she lived in Texas.
“It was very hard for me to understand medical vocabulary and terminology,” she said. “And at that time, I said, ‘Well, one day I will learn more English and see if I can help the community interpret.’”
Her colleague Santacruz had a similar story, but in Japan. Her husband’s diagnosis and treatment had to be translated from Japanese to English to Spanish, her native language.
“My husband died of cancer and at that time I had to learn medical terms very fast in Japanese,” she said. “I also thought, ‘I need to learn fast so I can help other people in that exact situation.’”
Now they help patients who know little to no English.
“Some of our clients, they speak some English,” Telecher said. “But, for example, if they work for a hotel they can speak in the hotel because they already know the vocabulary that they use every day. But when they go to a doctor’s appointment, everything changes, so that’s when they need us.”
The women said their presence can help patients feel safe and supported when they’re scared, in pain or sick.
“It is more than just interpretation,” Santacruz said. “They feel a little bit more comfortable if someone who speaks their language is there.”
Interpreters put in hours of work outside the patient’s room, too. Whether the patient has a chronic illness or a newborn baby, they help them schedule appointments, plan follow-ups and communicate lab results.
“We help them navigate the whole health care system that is pretty complex itself,” Wetzler said. “From having done this a long time, we’ve seen people who are pregnant and now the kids are in middle school. You’re part of people’s lives.”
Interpretation is critical
Pediatrician Karin Klee said La Voz has been “immensely helpful” coordinating care for her patients. Since she speaks Spanish, she usually communicates with them directly when they’re in the same room, but she can’t always do so for pre- or post-appointment needs.
“We wouldn’t be able to do our job without them,” Klee said. “It’s as simple as that.”
OB-GYN Giovaninna Anthony, who served on the board of El Puente, said the new nonprofit’s interpreter efforts are going well. From a labor and delivery perspective she prefers physical interpreters in the room over remote services provided over a tablet due to “super-chaotic” situations like emergency C-sections. She recounted a time when a virtual interpreter asked for staff to stop a newborn baby’s crying so it could hear what was going on.
“Every patient has to be a team player in their own health care,” she said. “If they have a full understanding of what’s being communicated to them, then they are much more likely to follow up, they are much more likely to be compliant with medications, they’re much more likely to develop a solid relationship with the care provider.
“It bridges not just a language gap but a cultural gap and helps us understand where they’re coming from in a really comprehensive way that helps us deliver better care,” she said.
Plus, Anthony said, healthier people equals fewer visits to the emergency room, which saves the health care system as a whole money.