Clip files / Local news from the states

This column features selected short items about state health care policy.

Hospitals must use translators

ALBANY—New York will require all hospitals to provide skilled translators amid fears that family members can be unreliable translators for non-English-speaking patients.

The reliance on friends and family to translate for patients — a common practice in exam rooms — can interfere with medical care, advocates say. A well-intentioned niece may hesitate to share upsetting news, or a patient might not disclose symptoms for fear of alarming their child. In other cases, information may just get garbled.

"It impedes the ability for information to flow freely and violates patient confidentiality laws," said Adam Gurvitch, director of health advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition, which pushed for the new regulations that recently took effect.

Most hospitals are likely to rely on volunteers, bilingual staff, and telephone translation agencies to meet the new rules, he said.

There are no state or federal standards for what qualifies as a "skilled" medical interpreter.

Jeffrey Hammond, spokesman for the state Health Department, said the regulations will be enforced through the state's regular on-site visits and by investigating patient complaints to the department's hotline.

Previously, hospitals were required to provide interpreters for all patients, but the broad wording allowed them to count children and relatives as translators, Mr. Gurvitch said. The new regulations clarify those terms and require hospitals to appoint language coordinators and identify a patient's primary language on medical records.

Patients still could choose to use friends or relatives as interpreters, but only after they refused translators provided by the hospital.

Children younger than 16 may not be used, except in emergencies.

— The Associated Press, Sept. 15, 2006