Going to the doctor can be an uncomfortable and intimidating experience. Imagine the fear and frustration of not being able to describe your symptoms or share your medical history to a physician or nurse because you don’t speak the same language.

Language can be a major barrier to health care for the numerous Alameda Health System (AHS) patients who don’t speak English as their first language. To ensure patients receive an exceptional care experience regardless of their language, culture, or background, AHS has an Interpreter Services department with dedicated and certified interpreters who are committed to breaking down language barriers.

Patient speaking to interpreter via Zoom while receiving his vaccination.

“We’ve heard of many instances where patients who do not speak English have nodded and said they understood what a physician was saying when in fact, they did not,” said Interpreter Services Manager Sambo Ly. “Patients who do not speak English fluently or at all, may feel afraid or unable to ask questions of their physician. Often this is due to a perceived unbalanced power dynamic between patients and their physicians.”

Ly shared AHS interpreters are available to support patients experiencing trauma as well as those coming in for routine visits with their Primary Care Provider (PCP).

“Language barriers can be particularly challenging when addressing trauma since generally people are more comfortable speaking in their native language when discussing painful physical or emotional events,” Ly said. “Our interpreters are here to support patients wherever they may be seeing their health care provider. We’re helping build health literacy one patient at a time.”

Health literacy refers to the skills patients need to understand and make decisions about their health and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is an individual’s ability to obtain, communicate and understand basic health information.

Effective communication between patient and provider is critical to the delivery of safe, high-quality care. Inadequate medical interpretation can lead to adverse outcomes and longer inpatient stays.

“All of our Interpreter Services staff is certified by the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). In addition, we provide assessments and training for bilingual employees through the Qualified Bilingual Program,” said Ly.

Interpreter Services provides medical interpretation to AHS patients either in person, by video or by phone. The patient’s preferred interpreter is identified during registration. Of the more than 24 languages spoken by AHS patients, Spanish language translator services are the most requested.

Interpreter Services receives approximately 800 calls each day to provide translation services and in addition to Spanish, translation services are also provided in Cantonese or Mandarin, Mam, Mien, Vietnamese, Tigrinya and many more.

Ly shared her team continues to work to find appropriate language interpreters for emerging languages spoken by the increasingly diverse communities AHS serves, especially for newly arriving immigrants and refugees.

She shared good communication is key to good health and she has made it her life’s mission to speak for those who struggle speaking for themselves and who need access to culturally competent care in their preferred language.

Having worked as a Cambodian interpreter at AHS since 1989, she embodies the mission to care and serve all. “Many people do not have professions that they are passionate about. I believe I have been blessed with this career,” said Ly.  “I feel honored to have the opportunity to give back to my community and all communities in this way.”

For more information and access to a language interpreter please visit: AHS Patient Services.