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How Interpreters Make Patient Care Better

The Interpretation Services team at Northwestern Medicine provides equitable access to care for patients and family members who prefer to communicate about health care in a language other than English.

Effective communication in healthcare settings is essential for ensuring that patients receive the best possible care. In an increasingly diverse and multicultural society, trained medical interpreters bridge the language gap between patients and care teams. They have the skills and knowledge to effectively convey medical information, while actively listening and interpreting patients’ concerns, emotions and preferences.

In 2022, interpreters provided 62,000 hours of interpretation services in 114 different languages at Northwestern Memorial Hospital through:

  • Face-to-face interpretation
  • Video interpretation via iPad
  • Interpretation via the phone, which includes more than 200 language options and is available 24/7

Benefits of Trained Interpreters

The presence of trained medical interpreters contributes to better health outcomes by minimizing the risk of miscommunication, medical errors and inadequate care.

“Interpreters empower patients to make informed decisions about their health, which leads to increased confidence and active engagement in their own care,” says Eileen Johnson, manager of Patient Relations and Interpretation Services for Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Northwestern Medical Group and Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care Centers. “Having someone who understands your cultural norms also gives you a sense of comfort as a patient. This fosters a supportive and inclusive environment where patients feel heard, respected and understood.”

A Passion for Making a Difference

While each member has their individual reasons for joining the Interpretation Services team, their shared passion lies in advocating for patients and making a positive impact on the community.

For Patricia Vazquez-Kurian, supervisor of Interpretation Services at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital, the journey to become an interpreter was personal.

“Before I became a medically trained interpreter, I would interpret for my mom at all of her appointments,” says Vazquez-Kurian. “After realizing that I was the connection between my mom and her doctor, facilitating her understanding of her health needs and how to improve them, I realized the significance of the role of an interpreter.”

In 2000, five years after her mother passed away, Vazquez-Kurian, who was working in Human Resources at Central DuPage Hospital, was invited to become the hospital’s first medically trained interpreter. Interpretation Services was a new department at the time, and hospital leadership opted to pay for her travel and training so she could serve in this new role.

“Becoming a Spanish-speaking interpreter is one of my proudest accomplishments,” she says. “I’ve learned so much, and it’s rewarding to see people participate in their care because they understand it and they feel comfortable asking questions.”

American Sign Language Interpreter Sarah Serralta discovered her passion for interpreting at a younger age. In high school, she was drawn to both the potential for professional growth within the field and the chance to support people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

“When I come to work, it keeps me motivated knowing that my team is essential in creating the kind of health care that we would want to experience ourselves,” she says. “I appreciate the collaborative and interdepartmental teamwork at Northwestern Medicine.”

Empowering Our Workforce

While rewarding, Northwestern Medicine recognizes the often-emotional nature of healthcare work, and mental well-being is a top priority. “Having a chaplain as a resource to speak with our staff about their experience during a shift and being able to debrief those situations was important to us, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Johnson says. To support work-life balance, Johnson also offers her team flexible schedules and accommodations.

The support for professional development is equally robust. Northwestern Medicine ensures interpreters have access to the highest level of certification, providing them with education days and study time to get their continuing education units.  

“The growth in Northwestern Medicine’s interpreter workforce speaks volumes about the organization’s commitment,” Johnson says. Her own team at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and across all Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care Centers has expanded from six interpreters in 2019 to 11 full-time Spanish interpreters, one sign language interpreter and an administrative assistant responsible for scheduling. “This expansion is not just numerical; it reflects Northwestern Medicine’s dedication to serving a diverse patient population with the utmost efficiency.”

Through initiatives like the Epic Dashboard for Interpretation Services, interpreters are now able to document their encounters and track their impact.

“It will always be my vision to grow and create awareness about the Interpretation Services team,” says Johnson. “We’re at Northwestern Medicine, one of the best health systems in the United States, and I want to make sure that every day we’re giving our best because that’s why patients come here and trust us.”

Learn more about Northwestern Medicine Interpretation Services and how you can make a difference by joining our team.