Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community


Breaking the language barrier

Carmen Arevalo relied on hospital interpreters to better understand treatment options for her daughter, Jennifer.


When Carmen Arevalo of Palo Alto sits down with her daughter’s oncologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, she talks about her daughter’s chemotherapy treatment and its possible side effects in her native language of Spanish.

Interpreters have accompanied Arevalo on various appointments since her 12-year-old daughter, Jennifer, was first diagnosed in 2009 with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer that can affect young children. Although Arevalo can speak and understand basic English, conversing in Spanish offers her a sense of comfort and enables her to more fully understand her daughter’s diagnosis and treatment options.

“When we first found out about the cancer, it was very scary for us,” said Arevalo, a native of Guatemala. “We needed to have a lot explained. Having an interpreter gives me more confidence and makes me more comfortable.”

Community diversity

Arevalo is one of the thousands of people who benefit from the interpreter services each year at Packard Children’s and Stanford Hospital & Clinics. The program began in 1971 and now has more than 50 interpreters on staff to serve the needs of the community. The demand continues to grow as the Bay Area becomes more diverse.

“Globalization is a reality. In some parts of the Bay Area, close to 50 percent of households speak a language other than English at home,” said Luis Alberto Molina, assistant director of Interpreter Services at Stanford Hospital. “Having this program in place meets a real need within our community.”

A survey of patients identified as needing an interpreter showed that more than 80 percent of respondents chose Stanford because of its interpreter services. “We have patients who drive from far away because they want these services,” Molina added.

Although face-to-face interactions are preferred, interpreters sometimes must interpret via telephone or videoconference because of the high demand for their skills. The most common languages requested are Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and American Sign Language, as well as Farsi, Korean and Japanese. If there’s a need for a language that isn’t spoken by Stanford’s interpreters, an outside agency is used.

Interpreters also provide translation services for the hospitals so that patients can receive forms, educational materials and prescriptions in multiple languages. “When patients and their family walk through our doors, we have a system in place designed to connect them to any piece of the information that they need,” said Graciela Duperrault, manager of Interpreter Services at Packard Children’s.

Special skills

The two hospitals hold a high standard for all interpreters, who receive extensive training and are required to pass an in-house medical interpretation exam. Many of the interpreters have master’s degrees in translation, as well as degrees in the health field.

“Medical interpreters have a very complex set of skills,” said Margarita Bekker, a Russian language medical interpreter. “Linguistic knowledge is just the beginning. Interpreters also need to know complex medical terminology and meet professional and ethical standards.”

Interpreters must hear the information, retain it in short memory and then repeat it in its entirety in another language with complete accuracy.

“Interpreters also have to develop an ear for all the different names of the medications, which may sound very similar,” Bekker said. “Our main role as interpreters is to be conduits to interpret everything that is said without additions or changing meaning.”

Beyond language skills, an interpreter must also be attuned to an individual’s culture and establish a sense of trust and respect. Providing comfort to patients is an aspect of the job that interpreters say is particularly rewarding.

“We connect to patients through their culture as well as their language,” said Duperrault. “Patients and their families immediately identify with the interpreters. There is this rapport and immediate connection, and you sense how grateful they are.”

Footer Links: