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Healthcare language barrier can be matter of life and death

Language barriers can be difficult when it comes to communicating with Mississippi’s growing immigrant population. For healthcare providers, it can be more than frustrating — it can mean the difference between life and death. Understanding what is being said between patients and healthcare workers is crucial to diagnosis and treatment.

Spanish common

In recent years, several areas in the state have experienced a surge in the number of Spanish-speaking residents, and hospitals are using a variety of ways to communicate correctly.

One of those areas is Scott County where a large number of Hispanics work in the poultry industry, and Scott Regional Hospital in Morton is seeing an increasing number of Spanish-speaking patients in the hospital and as out patients.

“We usually have someone on duty who speaks Spanish,” says Lanay Russum, the hospital’s marketing director. “If a Spanish-speaking staff member is not available, we use a member of the patient’s family or a friend.”

If none of those are available, hospital staffers use a telephone interpreter as a last resort, although Russum says the system works pretty well. “It can be difficult, but we do all we can to communicate clearly and make sure patients understand what is being said,” she said. “We also get our printed materials in Spanish and access other pieces on the Internet.”

The Coast is another area of the state experiencing a big increase in the Spanish-speaking population, many of whom have come to aid in the Hurricane Katrina-rebuilding efforts. This area is accustomed to cultural diversity and languages other than English. Memorial Hospital at Gulfport and the Singing River Hospital System with hospitals in Pascagoula and Ocean Springs also use the telephone interpreter system, Cyrocon. It’s not just for Spanish, but can provide interpreters in any language.

Vietnamese — and more

Ann Bobinger, director of customer relations at Memorial, says Spanish and Vietnamese are the two most common languages at the hospital after English. “Every patient gets a Patient Bill of Rights, and we have them in Spanish, Vietnamese and large print,” she says. “We also have a computer program, System Krame, that can print out teaching materials in 10 different languages. The pharmacy has these materials, too.”

Additionally, Memorial shows a video on global diversity during employee orientation, and has begun offering on-site Spanish classes. “The classes cover terms that are used in healthcare and have been well attended,” Bobinger says.

David Higdon, the emergency room manager at Ocean Springs Hospital, says the facility is fortunate to have some employees who speak Spanish as well as several other languages.

“We ask our employees to help us. We have a list of languages spoken by employees and update it periodically as new people join us,” he said. “In addition to Spanish, we have someone who speaks Vietnamese, Japanese, French, Italian, Chinese, Korean and Arabic.”

If those employees are not available, the hospital uses the language line, although they prefer to have a face-to-face interpreter.

Higdon finds that most times Vietnamese patients have family members — especially young people — who speaks fluent English now that this group has been on the Coast many years.

Ocean Springs Hospital also uses the computer software that prints in Spanish and other languages, making sure patients take home discharge instructions and follow-up care they can understand.

“We really saw the Hispanic population pump up immediately following Katrina, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue,” Higdon says. “Our annual growth in the emergency room of 5% jumped to 10% after the hurricane. Construction is underway to expand the capacity and add five more beds.”

Bobinger feels the staff at Memorial is getting more knowledgeable in dealing with the recent influx of Spanish-speaking patients. “Part of that is pure experience, and also we’ve hired more Spanish-speaking people,” she said. “We have them to come and help us and we’re working with families so communicating is much better now.”

She finds the Universal Language pain chart to be a useful tool, too. This laminated chart graphically depicts faces that correspond to degrees of pain without using words.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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