MADISON, Wis. - Norberta Garcia is increasingly familiar with the oncology department waiting room at UW Hospital. The terminology used once she’s in the doctor’s office is still a little foreign.
A few years ago, Garcia started feeling pain in her lower abdomen. After a number of tests, they diagnosed her with uterine cancer. Thankfully, she only needed a couple months of radiation and six weeks of chemotherapy. Since then, Garcia has had a number of follow-up appointments. The cancer has not come back.
The diagnosis was scary enough. Trying to understand the complicated medical jargon was another. On top of that, Garcia doesn’t speak English. She’s one of the many patients at UW and surrounding hospitals who rely on medical interpreters.
Marcela Venegas Mardones is one of eight full-time staff members in UW Health’s diversity office committed to translating physician’s questions and answers to patients.
Mardones was a practicing doctor in her home country of Chile before moving to Madison. When she came to the states, she decided not to get a new medical degree. Instead, she became an interpreter.
"I was familiar with the medical vocabulary, terminology, and I kind of love the patient relations and the connection with patients and the environment, so it was kind of great for me," Mardones said. "I feel lucky that I found this."
More than half of people who need interpreter services through UW speak Spanish. A number of patients request American Sign Language, Hmong, Arabic, and Mandarin as well.
According to federal statistics, the number of translator and interpreter positions across the U.S. is expected to grow by 18% between 2016 and 2026. That’s double the rate of all other occupations.
Hospitals have been required to offer language access services for more than 50 years. On top of that, UW Health chief diversity officer Shiva Bidar requires her staff and about 100 additional contracted interpreters to be nationally certified. Because of that mandate, Bidar says this area has the highest concentration of certified medical interpreters in the entire country.
"It can literally be the difference between life and death, the correct diagnosis versus the incorrect diagnosis of a patient," Bidar said. "It can also literally mean if they're going to be able to follow the instructions they're given, whether they're understanding, whether they're given the correct consent to the kind of procedure or surgery they're having."
The in-person interpreters cover about 20 different languages, but Bidar says the system also has access to a video and phone-based service that offers medical translations in more than 250 languages.
"As soon as an interpreter arrives, everyone is smiling. It doesn't matter how bad the situation is. It's just this smile or sense of relief because communication is so important," Bidar said.
Interpreters are on call 24 hours a day, helping with everything from routine appointments to emergency surgeries. Bidar says that means they need to know a lot of different terminology from a lot of different areas of health care, especially at a place like UW Hospital where doctors specialize in a wide array of very specific fields.
"It really is a really challenging work to do, but also super rewarding," Bidar said.
"It's so rewarding," Mardones said, "and needed!"
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