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How Interpreters are Helping Refugees Meet Their Health Needs

Image via Joy Diaz/Texas Standard
Rosalina Rivera shows off Seton family of hospitals' interpretation tablet. They are using the tablets to help refugees gain access to healthcare needs.

From Texas Standard:

Just a month ago, service providers in Texas were gearing up to receive some of the estimated 10,000 Syrian refugees scheduled to arrive in the United States in 2016. Last month's terrorist attacks in Paris raised caution flags for many state governors, including Gov. Greg Abbott.

The state yesterday sued to keep Syrians out of Texas. Politicians are saying that there are too many unknowns about refugees to safely give them refuge in Texas.


However, healthcare and other service providers have already laid the groundwork for refugee arrivals, whether those are from Syria or elsewhere. Those refugees who just moved to Texas who find themselves ill need care, but many don't speak English.

Rosalina Rivera is in charge of language services at Seton - a network of hospitals in Central Texas. The majority of her foreign-born patients speak Spanish, Rivera says. Some do not. But, she's ready for them. "We have our in-house interpreters – which are all Spanish," she says. "Through the video remote tablet, we offer 12 languages."

The tablet Rivera is talking about is in a different room, hooked to a rolling cart that looks like the ones used to cart monitors around.

"It's an Android tablet – it's very user friendly," Rivera says.

While she taps in her password, Rivera says the tablet provides a service similar to Skyping, except there's an interpreter.

"This is a screen that shows you all the languages," she says as she shows me the tablet.

There are interpreters for American Sign Language, Cantonese, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Nepali, Russian, Arabic and Polish. Rivera carries a black binder full of graphs and data. She says that, if need be, she can call interpreters over the phone who speak 200 more languages.

One trend she's noticed? Over the last three years the demand for Arabic interpretation has more than doubled.

"It was less than two percent and now it's closer to five percent – which is really interesting - right? Given the political climate that we are dealing with these days," Rivera says.

But Rivera says she’s not interested in the politics. When it comes to the health of a patient the goal is to save a life. There are other benefits to hiring qualified interpreters, she says.

"You have a reduction in re-admission rates because if they [patients] understand the treatment – they follow the treatment," she says. "Also you have informed consent."

As Texas becomes more multicultural, interpreters like Amy Hill are in high demand. "Any kind of school meeting, any kind of doctor's appointment and for the courts [ need interpreters]," Hill says.

Hill is with Austin's Inlingua Language Services. She says refugee resettlement agencies are not her only clients. A lot of work comes from multinational corporations that re-locate employees and their families to Texas – like oil executives from Brazil or tech gurus from India.

"We will train the spouse. We don't usually train the kids, because there is such a good ESL program at the schools, but the spouse does not have that," Hill says. "It's very hard for them to get used to a different culture, trying to figure out how to get a job here, how to do their resume and what English they need."

Whether or not any Syrian refugees end up in Texas, the tools service providers set up in advance to ease their transition are already here. They'll be used by the hundreds of thousands of non-citizen immigrants expected to make a new home in Texas in 2016.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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