issue Spring 2023

Lending Their Voice

By Judy Masterson
Photo by Michael R. Schmidt

Medical Interpretation is crucial to patient/provider interaction at the Interprofessional Community Clinic, where 74% of patients use Spanish interpreters during their appointments.

“The quality of health care shouldn’t be a luxury or a privilege,” said Jimena Resendiz, PharmD ’18, a certified medical interpreter and former ICC executive officer. “To give someone with limited English proficiency the same consideration and experience as an English speaker is essential to the connection and trust between the provider and the patient.”

Dr. Resendiz, who currently practices independent specialty infusion pharmacy, helped professionalize ICC interpretation services and training. Interpreters must participate in a competency assessment and shadowing before they volunteer.

“In competent medical interpretation, there can be no third person,” Dr. Resendiz said. “The interpreter is just a voice box for the patient, who is actually having the conversation with the provider.”

A medical interpreter stands a little behind and to the side of the patient, which discourages the provider and the patient from focusing on them during the conversation. The position helps sustain the visual connection between the two most important people in the room.

Janitza Torres, a student in Lake Forest College’s Health Professions Career Pathways, is the first RFU/Lake Forest College intern to take on the role of medical interpreter at the ICC. Like Dr. Resendiz, she grew up speaking Spanish and English, and she was often called on to translate at medical appointments for family members. They both came to understand that it was being the third person — passing information back and forth — that was the source of their unease with the process.

“With a third person, a patient may forget to share all their symptoms, because they’re too busy focusing on what to say to the interpreter and then waiting for them to repeat it and interpret the provider’s response,” Dr. Resendiz said. “They can lose their train of thought, then the provider starts talking. It can result in a lot of missed information.”

“It was awkward and challenging as a child, not knowing the full terminology in English or Spanish,” Ms. Torres said. “It did help develop my vocabulary, and I was happy to help. I saw many patients from immigrant backgrounds who had no help with translation and so couldn’t really connect with their providers.”

Collaboration with medical interpreters is not standard teaching practice in most academic healthcare programs, said Sarah Haag, PT, DPT ’08, MS ’08, assistant professor and director of ICC clinical education, who oversees the internship.

“The fact that the ICC is providing qualified interpreters for our many Spanish-speaking patients increases the quality of care,” she said. “It also teaches our students how to work with medical interpreters, how to give patients respect by speaking directly to them, and allow the interpreter to do the interpreting.”

ICC Faculty Advisor and Assistant Professor Yovanna Pomarico, MBA, stresses the need to recruit skilled Spanish-language medical interpreters to ensure safe healthcare practices.

“Spanish medical interpreters not only are the communication bridge between the triadic interprofessional team — they indirectly assume a coordinating role while simultaneously acting as the intermediary between the clinician, the message sender and the patient, the message receiver.”

Ms. Torres, a first-generation college student who hopes to enter RFU’s Nursing Education to Workforce Pathway, experienced many medical visits and hospitalizations as a child with chronic asthma. 

“A respiratory therapist told me that being bilingual, I could make a difference for a lot of people,” she said. “I carried that with me for a long time. Interpreting for ICC patients, hearing their stories and how grateful they are for the care they’re receiving, is a fulfillment of the promise that therapist saw in me. I hope that others who speak another language will consider lending their voice to those who don’t have one.”