Qualified Language Access: Essential and mandatory

On September 8, I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I spoke with a woman who works there and told her I am a Spanish interpreter. She told me she wished her husband had been able to work with an interpreter 30 years ago, before he met her. Here is her story, as she emailed it to me. Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.

Luis came from Peru, South America, to the United States of America to search for an eye doctor who could help him with his eyes. After seeing several doctors in several countries, and having been told that they could not help him, he went to Dr. XXXX in Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. XXXX wrote in my husband’s medical record that nothing could be done to make his eyes better.

Luis had partial detached retina in both eyes but he was still able to see with the help of glasses. He did not understand because he did not speak English. A friend told Luis about NIH (National Institutes of Health) and recomended that he try there. The NIH doctor saw his records from Dr. XXXX at Johns Hopkins, but proceeded to do an experimental operation on one eye  and then the other eye, and made Luis totally blind in both eyes.

I hope that someone can prevent this kind of malpractice. Thank you for your interest.

Currently, Federal regulations require that hospitals work with qualified interpreters and translators to provide language access. Family and friends are not allowed to provide interpreting and translation services. Untrained and untested bilingual employees do not qualify for this task either. Luis’s situation should not happen in today’s environment. However, is this the case? Is this happening in schools, in police stations, or in other settings?

4 thoughts on “Qualified Language Access: Essential and mandatory

  1. Carol

    Also research cannot be done without full consent of the patient. Which means that the consent form has to be translated and/or sight translated to the patient with the help of a qualified translator /interpreter. I don’t know since when these forms are mandatory but they are wasted unless they are translated, read to and signed by the patient.
    Thank you for sharing this story!

    1. heleneby Post author

      That is what I told her. That informed consent means, above all, that you understood. In any language. So you have to understand to be informed! Therefore, he did not give consent for his experimental treatment. However, by the time they found out they could sue, the statute of limitations was expired. It was too late. But even if they had sued and gotten money back, he would have wanted his sight!


  2. Yilda Amparo Ruiz Monroy

    I think this is a wonderful example of how things can go really wrong, not only in the medical field, but in any field. However, in this specific case, I think the story should pinpoint how a professional interpreter might have been the difference between this terrible outcome, and a positive one.

    1. heleneby Post author

      You have to understand that Lau vs Nichols was in 1974. This episode was 30 years ago, barely in 1986. At that time, “interpreters” were just whatever they could find, anyone who called himself a bilingual person was OK. We have come a long way. Check this Workers Compensation post from OSTI, to see what we still have to clean up in Oregon! In 2009, they did not have a definition for an interpreter in the Workers Compensation Board!

      Thanks for your interest, Yilda. These issues are really important. A professional interpreter would have made all the difference, and today we understand that. Please use these resources to share that information. Here is a description of professional interpreters and translators, for your reference. Eight professional associations have signed on to support it. That says something.

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