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Clinic workers say St. Louis needs more medical interpreters

An illustration of a group of darker-skinned people talking to a doctor
Christina Chung
Special to NPR
Not everyone who is bilingual can work as a medical interpreter, health workers said. The job requires language skills as well as medical knowledge.

Medical providers in St. Louis are having trouble finding people with the knowledge and language skills to be interpreters, a critical need for clinics and hospitals.

Even finding interpreters for Spanish and other widely spoken languages can be taxing, said workers at local clinics.

“It's certainly very difficult to keep a pool of available interpreters,” said Diego Abente, the president and CEO of the community health clinic Casa de Salud. “Casa has been doing this for about 13 years. And primarily, we look for Spanish interpreters, which is probably one of the easiest languages to find an interpreter for in our region. But it is an almost full-time job in order to keep that pool of folks available.”

Medical offices can have their own interpreters or work with organizations that provide them to work during patient visits or telehealth appointments. Casa de Salud relies on clinic volunteers and calls in help from other organizations if those people aren’t available.

“We believe that it's a fundamental right,” Abente said. ”It's a critical part of the way that we provide services, that they're able to do that in the language that they are most comfortable with.”

Kristina Le, human resources manager at St. Louis-based LAMP Interpreters, said there’s “never enough” people to fill the demand for the services. The nonprofit boasts about 300 interpreters who handle around 400 appointments a day.

The interpreters need to pass multiple tests comprising medical terminology and language knowledge in order to work at LAMP, she said. Simply being bilingual isn’t enough to work the job.

“The anatomy of an eye consists of a couple hundred words,” said Le, who also has worked as a medical interpreter. “You have to know what those terms mean, in both languages. So just because you speak a foreign language does not necessarily mean that you have the skills to be a medical interpreter.”

Workers and dispatchers also need to be aware of cultural and dialectical differences among patients that may make understanding more difficult, she said.

Interpreters who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian or Bosnian are most in demand.

“There's always a shortage in every language, though,” Le said. “Because we struggle to find individuals with the professional willingness to be in the field, and the language skills, and especially medical terminology language skills.”

Translators, who work with written documents, and interpreters are also needed to help outside the doctor’s office, said Julia López, an assistant professor at the Washington University School of Medicine. It became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic that messages about vaccinations and other health information weren't reaching people who didn’t speak English as their first language, she said.

Children, friends and relatives of patients are sometimes tasked with translating for their family members, López said. That can cause problems, especially if health workers need to give patients complicated or traumatic information about their health.

“There is a lot of nuance that I think comes in health and health care needs, and we're putting on the burden on friends to be that interpreter,” she said.

The public may not be aware that medical interpreters are needed, she said, agreeing with Le that many think anyone who is bilingual can work as an interpreter. If more people knew about the need, more people may be interested in going into the field, she said.

The job can also be mentally taxing, Le said.

“I interpreted for hospice. I had to interpret for a family member,” she said. “That's the end of this person's life, and you witness that. It hits you hard when you have to go home.”

Casa de Salud’s Abente said as more immigrants come to the region, the pool of potential medical interpreters will grow. Providing that care can in turn attract more immigrants, he said.

“[When] we attract more bilingual people, we increase capacity in interpreters,” he said. “That allows us to serve a more diverse constituency of our community. That sends a signal to other people who could move here.”

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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