Providence Health, the region’s largest medical service provider, has turned to online interpreters to help non-English-speakers receive care from nurses, doctors or therapists.
The Providence network recently announced that more than 30 of its facilities in the Western United States are using a video interpreting company.
Until three years ago, Providence, which runs Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital, relied heavily on in-person interpreters to help patients communicate with staff or physicians.
Starting in 2011 in several locations Providence began testing a number of online interpretation companies. It eventually selected Language Access Network, a national provider, based in Columbus, Ohio.
At this point, Sacred Heart and Holy Family use in-person interpreters about once every six times interpreting is needed, said Cathy McInroe, the hospitals’ director of social work.
The advantages of video interpreting include reduced costs and the ability to respond to patient needs quickly, she said.
Providence staff members use a touch-screen computer to reach an interpreter within seconds. Without that option, hospital staff used a phone-based system or called in a live interpreter if one was available.
Video interpreting is particularly valuable when treating deaf patients, McInroe added. Finding American Sign Language interpreters locally can be a challenge, especially in off-peak hours.
The online system is critical, she said, if staff are treating a deaf patient in the emergency room and need rapid assistance.
“Now, with the (online) system, you hit the button and you soon have a real person on the video screen doing the interpreting,” she said.
While based in Ohio, the Language Access Network has five centers with medically trained interpreters ready to translate in more than 200 languages around the clock, company spokeswoman Dori Jennings said. The company, like most providing remote video interpreting, charges a monthly service charge and per-minute fees.
Language Access Network is not the exclusive provider of interpreting services for Providence. The hospital system also uses, for instance, a Seattle and Wenatchee-based firm, InDemand Interpreting, for some of its remote video interpretation.
Owned by a physicians group, LAN provides services to around 350 hospitals nationwide. Its most frequent language requests are for Spanish, Farsi, American Sign Language and Arabic.
At Providence’s hospitals, and at Valley and Deaconess hospitals, the languages most in demand are Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish and Vietnamese.
Community Health Systems, which operates Valley and Deaconess, uses a mix of live in-person and phone-based interpreting, spokeswoman Sasha Weiler said. Community Health is not currently evaluating using video interpreting, she said.
As in other hospital systems, the decision by Providence to use more remote services is driven by efforts to reduce costs, McInroe said.
Live interpreters charge hospitals both for per-mile travel costs and for the time spent interpreting. That fee usually starts around $30 per hour but often goes much higher depending on other factors.
Insurance companies don’t cover that expense, forcing hospitals to bear the cost. If Medicaid-covered patients needing interpreting services are treated at an emergency room, hospitals must bear that cost as well, McInroe said.
The exception: Medicaid will almost always cover the cost of outpatient interpreting, such as in physician offices, she said.
McInroe said the staff knows that not every patient can be at ease communicating with an interpreter on a video screen. Patients with severe or terminal illnesses and those with dementia or suffering emotional disorders may require in-person interpreting.
She acknowledges the ideal solution is a live person. “But there is a trade-off. You can’t just have an interpreter sitting in a room waiting” for a doctor to arrive or for test results to come back, she said.
Marta Reyes, who runs Spokane International Translation, sees the drift toward medical online interpreting as a loss in quality in the rush to trim costs.
Her company contracts with a few dozen area language specialists and until a few years ago provided many of the interpreters at Sacred Heart and Holy Family, she said.
“A live person really can experience all the body language a patient has,” Reyes said.