It was scary enough to be told she had breast cancer. Even worse for Truc Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, she didn’t understand a word the doctor was saying.
“I was sad, worried and scared because I could not understand what was going on in my body,” Nguyen, 46, said later through an interpreter. “It makes a big difference if you can understand your doctor and express yourself and ask questions.”
Fortunately, Princess Margaret Hospital, through its in-house interpretation services, was able to come to Nguyen’s aid two years ago when she got the diagnosis. She’s now in remission.
“I hope all patients who can’t speak English can get the help, so they don’t feel lost, lonely and depressed,” said the mother of two, who has worked in factory jobs ever since joining her husband in Toronto in 1992.
As of Tuesday, Nguyen’s wish is one step closer as the Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) launches the first 24/7, GTA-wide medical interpretation service.
Hospitals and clinics used to provide interpretation services in a piecemeal way. Some bought telephone interpretation services, paying rates ranging from $1.70 to $8 per minute.
The LHIN is now coordinating bulk purchasing, giving 19 GTA hospitals and 14 community agencies access to 24-hour interpretation services in 170 languages, including aboriginal languages, at $1.44 or less a minute, depending on monthly usage.
Studies have shown patients with difficulty communicating in English tend to stay in hospital longer, visit emergency rooms more often, have avoidable health complications, and are more likely to be readmitted after a hospital stay.
According to the University Health Network (UHN), which has integrated phone interpretation into its language services program, 1,200 calls are made to medical interpreters in its hospitals alone each month. Some 500,000 people in GTA have limited English ability and may require interpretation support in medical matters.
Dr. Samir Sinha, UHN’s director of geriatrics, said at least one-quarter of his patients could benefit from the service. Even patients who are fully bilingual may find their ability to speak a second language deteriorates as they age, particularly those with dementia.
“It is important for patients to articulate what their concerns are, their signs and symptoms, and answer questions accurately,” said Sinha, adding that translation by family members and friends isn’t good enough, due to their lack of medical interpretation training and patient privacy concerns.
Not being able to communicate is frustrating, and miscommunication can even lead to errors and harm patients, he said.
Sinha, who leads the province’s senior care strategy, said he hopes the Language Services Toronto initiative can be expanded across Ontario to ensure equity and access to quality health care for all.
Top 10 languages spoken in Toronto after English and French
2. Mandarin and other Chinese dialects