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Distributed April 21, 2004
Contact Kristen Cole

Meeting the needs of a diverse population
Bilingual Brown students act as medical interpreters at a local hospital

More than 30 Brown students volunteer as medical interpreters at Rhode Island Hospital where Spanish-speaking patients are most common among those seeking help. Interpreters are increasingly important to meet the needs of a changing population, say doctors. Although required by law, interpretation services are not always available in health care settings.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Interpreter’s Aide Program trains bilingual students from Brown University to facilitate communication between doctors and patients at Rhode Island Hospital and is a model that may be used wherever there is a college or university in this nation, according to doctors who manage the program.

Although Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires interpretation services to be available in health care institutions for people who speak limited English, many institutions struggle to reach full compliance, said Alicia D. Monroe, M.D., associate professor of family medicine in the Brown Medical School. Monroe is director of faculty development in the Department of Family Medicine at Brown University and is based at the Memorial Hospital Family Medicine Program.

That struggle is not likely to ease soon. The U.S. Census Bureau recently projected the tripling of Hispanic and Asian populations in 50 years while non-Hispanic whites may drop to half of the total population.

“It is clear that when physicians and patients can’t understand each other, good health is impossible,” said Monroe. “The Interpreter’s Aide Program is one model for expanding interpretation services through partnerships between academic institutions and health care organizations.”

Each year, more than 30 Brown students volunteer as interpreters through the program, which was established in 1998 as a joint venture between Brown Medical School and the Rhode Island Hospital Department of Social Work. The students come from both the medical school and undergraduate campus and commit at least four hours a week to the hospital.

Rhode Island Hospital employs professionals to provide interpretation in a variety of languages, but the need for services exceeds the capacity of the interpreters, said Monroe. The population in need is diverse. In 1996, requests for interpreter services was 73 percent for Spanish; 7.5 percent for Russian; 7 percent for Portuguese; 4.4 percent for Cambodian; 3.6 percent for Armenian; and 4.5 percent for all other languages.

Originally proposed in response to the large need for interpretation services in the emergency department, the Interpreter’s Aide Program is now available in many departments, including subspecialty clinics, the internal medicine clinic and radiology.

Students qualify for the volunteer interpreter positions by shadowing professional interpreters and taking oral and written exams. They both become trained medical interpreters and render community service while developing cultural skills, said Monroe.

Brown students Patricia Wissar and Jason Ferreira serve as coordinators of the Interpreter’s Aide Program this year.

“It’s a good way to leave campus and get exposure to everyday life,” said Wissar, who is a native Spanish speaker. “As one of my friends said, ‘When you’re in chemistry class you wonder why am I taking this?’ Then she goes to the hospital and gets motivated.”


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