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April 12, 2013
Another View: Patient safety must not get lost in translation

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(April 12 -- By John A. Pérez, Special to The Bee)

More than 40 percent of Californians speak a language other than English at home, and almost 7 million Californians have a limited English proficiency.

At some point we've probably all seen someone having difficulty at the grocery store or the bank or in general navigating daily life in our state with limited English proficiency.

Now, imagine that person in one of the most important and potentially frightening situations imaginable - a hospital emergency room. Better yet, imagine you are that person. Sick. Scared. In pain. And totally unable to communicate what you are feeling or understand what is being asked of you.

There's an easy way to solve this problem - increasing the availability of medical interpreters in our hospitals.

Right now, language assistance in medical settings is provided by trained or untrained staff if you're lucky to have a language match or, more frequently, in an informal manner by family members or friends. Providers are doing their best, but in a state as large and as diverse as California with more than 100 languages spoken, there are troubling gaps.

Studies have found that language barriers contribute to inadequate evaluations and diagnoses, and result in inappropriate treatment and medical errors, which could lead to unnecessary procedures, tests and costs.

Having more trained and professional interpreters through the Medi-Cal system will save lives of Californians with limited English proficiency.

It also reduces costs to the state. By reducing misdiagnoses and unnecessary treatments, health professionals will have the correct information they need to make accurate and early assessments of patient health.

Assembly Bill 1263 will ensure that California has an opportunity to develop a more comprehensive language assistance program by seeking additional federal funding for medical interpreter services through the Medi-Cal program, with federal funding accounting for 75 percent of the cost.

It will establish the Medi-Cal Patient Centered Communication program - Communi-Cal - at the California Department of Health Care Services to provide and reimburse for certified medical interpretation services to limited English proficient Medi-Cal enrollees. And it also will establish a certification process and registry of certified medical interpreters.

Some, including The Bee's editorial board ("Pérez bill could add to health reform costs," April 9), oppose my bill to increase interpreters because it would allow interpreters to choose whether to exercise the right to collectively bargain. That's unfortunate. Even for those ideologically opposed to unions, the mere chance that interpreters might possibly choose to collectively bargain should not be sufficient cause to ignore this threat to vulnerable Californians with limited English proficiency.

In the neighborhood where my mother grew up, Yiddish was one of the pre-eminent languages spoken, and she passed a love for the language on to me. That is why I should never have to say Er helft azay vi-ah toyt en bankus ("Patient safety should not get lost in translation.")

We should do everything we can to ensure our health care works for everyone, whether they speak Amharic, Finnish - or English.

John A. Pérez is speaker of the California Assembly.

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