Providing communication in the time of COVID-19: Rush staff interprets dozens of languages

Medical Watch

Sometimes it’s not just about translating complicated medical terms into words people can understand. It’s about knowing how to respond to every patient in a multi-cultural city like Chicago.

For Rush University Medical Center, that meant speaking 65 languages in the pandemic.

In a city where 30 percent of the population speaks a language other than English, hospitals have become the epicenter of the melting pot during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Rush University Medical Center interpreter Carlos Olvera and his colleagues are typically called on to assist patients in 10 to 15 languages. During the pandemic that number jumped to 65.

“It’s about 150 languages spoken in Chicago, so it’s a very multilingual city,” he said. “The top five languages that we provided that were requested were Spanish number one, Cantonese, Polish, Mandarin, Russian, we had Arabic.”

With no family members and limited hospital staff at their side, patients rely on interpreters to help guide them through diagnosis and treatment.

 “We were getting calls from family members who had just dropped off their loved ones in the ER and they had no idea what was happening to the family member,” Olvera said. “They knew they didn’t speak English and so the added distress, so we would assure the family members that we had the services, that the family member will be provided services given in their language and not to worry.”

Instead of the standard bedside hospital phone, Olvera and his team employ this system to set up a three-way conference call between the caregiver, patient and interpreter.

 “The dual handset phone helps us kind of put a distance between our provider and our patients,” he said. “So, once you have the interpreter on the other side of the call, then you give the other handset to the patient.”

Hospital staff can also roll in a secure iPad for face-to-face communication with a sign language expert or a video remote interpreter like Carrie, who speaks seven languages.

 “I speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Taishanese, Spanish, Japanese, a little bit German and French,” she said.

It’s not just a language barrier that’s challenged patients and interpreters during the pandemic.

 “In the COVID-19, the situation is even more difficult because in the beginning the message or information was not very clear, and the people didn’t understand it well, so the patient was terrified,” Carrie said.

It’s a critical service at a critical time. For some patients, it is their final lifeline to the outside world, particularly if the patient is put on a ventilator. A communication gap can be terrifyingly confusing.

“Part of the instructions the provider will give the patient is for them to contact their family and start saying their goodbyes because there is a chance that the patient may not come off the ventilator,” Olvera said. “At the end of the day, we are proud of what we do.”

Olvera and his team say it’s not just the bad news they have to interpret. In the best scenarios, they also get to tell patients they are going home.

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