In 2016, 65.5 million US residents spoke a foreign language at home. That number has doubled since 1990 and nearly tripled since 1980. Of those speaking a foreign language, 26.1 million told the Census Bureau they speak English less than very well.
According to US News and World Report, a California hospital is testing out using Google Translate with its patients who speak foreign languages. The success rate has been high, but when you’re dealing with what could be life and death matters, anything less than 100% is not good enough.
Nowhere is this clearer than the case of Willie Ramirez. In 1980, the 18-year-old was hanging out with a friend when he developed a debilitating headache. He tried to ignore it, but then later managed to drive to his girlfriend’s house where he eventually passed out. At the hospital, Willie’s girlfriend and her mother tried to explain what they knew. The medical staff heard someone with Willie use the word ‘intoxicado’ and took it to mean ‘intoxicated.’ But to Cubans, ‘intoxicado’ means you may have eaten or drunk something that didn’t agree with you. With the language barrier and cultural differences, a lot was implied, and mistakes were made. Willie was treated for a drug overdose. The misdiagnosis and subsequent treatment left him with complete quadriplegia. Had a qualified interpreter been made available, Willie could have walked out of the hospital.
Marlon Munoz tells NPR that he accompanied his wife to a routine breast biopsy eighteen years ago. The doctor spoke no Spanish, and his wife spoke no English. So the doctor explained to Munoz that his wife had stage one breast cancer. He says he cried before he could break the news to his wife. Munoz and his wife both wish he didn’t have to be the one to tell her this news. It put a strain on their marriage for a long time. Now, Munoz volunteers as a medical interpreter, so he doesn’t have to put another family in the same position.
More people in the US today speak Spanish as a second language than did in 1980. Willie may have had a better chance today than he had 39 years ago. But today, US hospitals aren’t only dealing with Spanish-speaking immigrants. In 2016, there were more than a million people in the US who speak Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Arabic, French, or Korean. (And yes, Spanish too.)
There are now laws in place that require hospitals and other medical facilities that receive federal funds to provide “meaningful access” to patients so that they can make informed decisions about their health. This means providers must offer qualified interpreters, as well as translations for prescriptions and other medical documents.
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