COVID-19 highlights the importance of interpretation services in healthcare

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Interpretation services help to make healthcare possible for many people who speak a language besides English and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

But during the coronavirus pandemic when health information is vital and the number of people allowed in medical facilities has been minimized, interpretation services are needing to adapt to meet the present need.

Stephanie Cawthon, Director of the Austin-based National Deaf Center and professor at UT Austin, put it directly: “Honestly, interpreters are needed more than ever.”

“Because if there’s an emergency situation, you know, there are more and more people who aren’t in their typical everyday environment,” Cawthon said. She noted that people may not have the same teachers, coworkers, or friends nearby them to help them translate during this time.

KXAN spoke with Cawthon with the help of interpreter Sarah Brown, Access Coordinator at the National Deaf Center.

The National Deaf Center’s work revolves around supporting the deaf community during education and times of transition. During the pandemic, the center quickly saw many transitions for the deaf community including transitions to online learning for students and transitions toward feeling more isolation and loneliness for others.

Cawthon noted that many interpreters have also been adjusting to working remotely as opposed to working at a site.

The National Deaf Center has been answering questions and compiling resources during COVID-19, including pointing people toward a directory of interpreters and offering them guidance on captioning coursework.

Cawthon noted that during the pandemic, in addition to the need for actual interpreters, the National Deaf Center has also been hearing from people about the need for accurate, accessible information.

“So if we have a printed briefing or a video with the mayor or the president, is it accessible to everyone? Is it accurate information about what’s going on and what we’re doing and the timeline?” she said. “So it’s not always a fact that there is equal access to everyone, so that is an issue for health information in general.”

“We see a lot of concerns about access to interpreters, to CART transcriptions, access that students are facing as they are moving from on-site to online classes, ” Cawthon said.

She also noted that with social distancing guidelines and policy changes, the people who might typically be at a clinic or hospital to help with interpretation may not be as readily available. Cawthon said that while there are standard practices for remote video interpreting, there’s still a “gray area” around how that support will be provided across the board in medical settings.

Stephanie Cawthon (bottom) and Sarah Brown (upper Left) of the National Deaf Center speak with KXAN’s Alyssa Goard about access to interpretation services during COVID-19. Screenshot taken from Zoom call with Alyssa Goard.

For those searching for interpretation and translation help right now, Cawthon emphasized, “I would want those people to know you are not alone. There are people who are thinking about you and care about you. You may feel isolated, but your community is out there, you are a valued part of that community.”

“So take care of yourself more intentionally, reach out to those resources if you can,” she continued. “I have seen messages on community boards and forums about different psychologists and other services people are looking for that are accessible, many people are very willing to share resources right now.”

Interpretation in medical settings

Brooke Coleman, the Network Language Access Manager for Ascension Seton, explained that in early March of 2020, Ascension Seton launched a tool which allows interpreters to use phone or video conference to join conversations with patients and doctors.

Coleman works to make sure healthcare is accessible in a variety of languages at Ascension’s twelve Central Texas hospitals and more than 200 clinics. She works with a team of 24 associates who provide medical interpretation in Spanish and also works with a national agency that offers translation services in 240 additional languages.

Coleman explained that the pandemic has forced her team to rethink their model, with interpreters still available to appear in person for critical health-related conversations and virtual translations available 24 hours a day. She said that Ascension Seton’s Spanish interpreters can provide Spanish interpretation for any of the 12 Ascension Central Texas hospitals that have this new tool in motion.

Coleman explained that interpreters are able to join in on conversations with healthcare professionals and patients virtually and over the phone in the interest of social distancing.

“We have been able to place our interpreters via video into some of those conversations,  so clinical consults can still happen within the hospital,” she said, noting that this virtual communication helps the overall effort of trying to reduce opportunities for the virus to spread.

“We’re able to continue to provide that same support, even where the [the patient is] physically there, we’re also there virtually at the same time so it’s a great hybrid,” she said.

Some patients really like having the visual cues of seeing an interpreter speaking to them, Coleman explained. But other patients do not have access to internet or technology that would allow then to do video chats from home. For those patients, she explained, Ascension Seton has been having interpreters join in on healthcare conversations over the phone.

“We had to learn that,” she said of her team’s response to the community’s language needs during COVID-19. “I think we thought we were going to be ahead of the game by being highly technological, but that isn’t always the case so sometimes and we still had to go back to an audio platform and it’s been the best option for some of our patients and some of our providers.”

An Ascension Seton employee helps to translate information from a patient on a virtual call. Image courtesy Ascension Seton.

Coleman said that a vast majority of the interpretation services her team provides in Central Texas are in Spanish. However, there are a wide range of languages spoken by Central Texans, and Coleman said that Ascension Texas wound up interpreting healthcare information in 80 different languages last year.

“It’s been over the past few years that I’ve seen a pretty drastic change in how we provide language,” she explained. “So I have over 300 iPads or tablets within our system, throughout all of our hospitals and many of our clinics to be able to provide that interface visually.”

In Austin in particular, Coleman said that there is demand for deaf interpreters and American Sign Language interpreters. She noted that at Ascension Texas facilities, deaf individuals can get interpretation services in person and virtually.

“So during this pandemic we’ve continued to see the need to bridge that, you know, that divide between English and Spanish with our in interpreters and with other languages through the video platform,” she added.

At Ascension Texas facilities to access interpretation for those who are deaf or for those with limited English proficiency, all patients need to do is indicate when they arrive at the facility that they need an interpreter or that they don’t speak English. You can find more information on Ascension Texas’ interpretation options here.

St. David’s Healthcare told KXAN that they offer language interpretation and translation services via video conferences for more than 200 languages 24 hours a day seven days a week. Additionally, they offer sign language services over video chat and in person through third-party organizations.

Baylor Scott & White tells KXAN that it offers interpreter services including virtual interpretation

Interpretation help through the City of Austin

The City of Austin told KXAN that it uses contracted vendors to work over the phone and via video remote interpretation services to help members of the community who have limited proficiency in English.

For those who are deaf of hard of hearing, the city is using American Sign Language services with either an in-person ASL interpreter or video remote ASL interpretation services. Additionally, the city has partnered with Texas-based compay DeafLink to provide ASL interpretation of city videos.

In March, the city said that the top five languages requested for interpretation were Spanish, Arabic, Swahili, French, Creole, Korean, Mandarin, Swahili, Turkish

To get connected to any of those interpretation services, the city says to call 311 to request a translator or visit the city’s COVID-19 website. When working with specific City of Austin departments, the city says that people who don’t speak English can use a language identification card (iSpeak Card) to point to their preferred language and be connected to an interpreter.

Austin Public Health is trained to work with people who do not speak English, the city says. APH also uses iPads for video remote interpreting.

The department has also provided key information on its COVID-19 website translated in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese Simplified and Traditional, Korean, Burmese, Arabic, and Urdu.

“The City of Austin is working hard to ensure that access to COVID-19 information is available to everyone,” a city spokesperson said. “The translation process is very important to us and we are working hard to get the information translated.”

Circling back to you with some information on your question about the monthly interpretation services numbers. Unfortunately, we don’t have all the numbers for April yet, but here are the ones we have from March, and the numbers for the Internal Spanish calls for April. The Language line calls are the ones we receive from an outside source, and the ones we we don’t have yet.

During the month of March, the city of Austin says that out of the total 89,928 total calls it received, 5,189 or 5.77% were in Spanish and 544 were calls in another language to the city’s language line.

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