News & Events

Interpreter Services: Found in Translation


Imagine how it would feel if you had a health problem you couldn’t discuss with your doctor or other caregivers, because you literally spoke different languages? On nearly 70,000 occasions at Tufts Medical Center in FY 2013, Interpreter Services made sure that patients and clinicians never experienced such a gap in understanding each other.

The 69,416 individual conversations involving an interpreter or a dedicated language phone line represent a 61-percent increase since FY 2007 in the number of patient encounters in which Interpreter Services played a role. An encounter can be as simple as a call to remind a patient of a follow-up appointment or as complex as a discussion about end-of-life care. “Our interpreters are very dedicated to our patients, doctors and nurses,” said Manager of Interpreter Services Yingshu Osborne. “Their language skills are a bridge between our patients and their ability to understand and hopefully manage their conditions, so they are a critical part of the patient care team.”

Osborne’s department manages its approximately 46,200 annual live-interpreter encounters with 15.4 FTEs (17 staff interpreters total) and 42 per diem staffers. Combined, those interpreters speak 43 languages. The language line, used about 23,000 times a year, provides more than 180 languages, including relatively rare dialects sometimes spoken by our patients from China.

“Obviously, there are situations in health care in which having an interpreter present is vital,” said Director of Ambulatory Nursing Operations, Social Work and Interpreter Services Heidi Waitkus, RN, MBA. “But the language line is a vital resource that can help fill a need when a patient arrives unexpectedly or the conversation is relatively straightforward.”

Marybeth Singer, NP, a patient program manager in the Breast Health Center, said the language line has been embraced by her patients as a time-saver during routine appointments.

“Universally patients say, `the phone is fine if I don’t have to wait.’ I think offering patients the option just shows respect for peoples’ time,” Singer said. Clinics that aren’t currently using language lines can call the IS Help Desk at 6-6485 to have an analog jack set up and request a two-handset(dual) phone from Interpreter Services.

Since interpreters’ talents are in such high demand, Osborne and her department have worked with clinical programs that see a large number of patients from certain language groups to cluster appointments on a weekly basis, enabling one or two interpreters to work efficiently with one patient after another over the course of a morning or afternoon. The Asian-Pacific Liver Wellness Program (Hepatology), ENT, Hand Clinic, Adult Orthopedics and Ophthalmology have all had success with this approach. Osborne said Interpreter Services would be glad to hear from other programs who would like to consider a similar approach.

“We’re here to partner with caregivers to offer the best possible service to our patients,” she said.

Facts about Interpreter Services:

  • 12 out of the 17 on-staff interpreters have been at Tufts MC for more than 12 years; three have been here more than 20 years
  • Most on-staff interpreters speak three or more languages: two speak five languages
  • 66.5 percent of interpreter appointments are for Chinese languages; 12 percent are for Spanish; 9 percent are for Vietnamese; 3 percent are for Portuguese or Portuguese Creole; and 1.5 percent are for Bosnian or Italian.