When the parents of a Chinese college student in Oakland, Calif., learned he was dying of a terminal disease, they quickly booked a flight from China to see their son. At his bedside at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, they met interpreter Yunica Li, who grew up in China.

Li interpreted critical conversations between doctors and the couple. After they made the decision to withdraw their son's care, Li helped them grieve - interpreting stories of their son's childhood and passions from Mandarin into English for the staff who had taken care of him.

In Oakland, nearly 40 percent of people speak a language other than English at home, and more than a quarter were born outside the United States. In San Francisco, the numbers are much the same, if slightly higher. That diversity in culture and language is why UCSF Benioff Children's Hospitals is a national leader in providing around-the-clock interpreter services in more than 240 languages. 

At UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, 19 in-house staff interpreters offer in-person interpretation in Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Mam. LanguageLine professional medical interpreters work both in-person and remotely to interpret other languages. 

"We want the community to know that everyone is welcome in our facilities," says Hilda Diaz, manager of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland's Interpreter Services. "Regardless of your color, your country of origin or your language, we will accept you."

Interpreter within minutes

Diaz knows first-hand how daunting it can be for non-English speakers to navigate the American healthcare system and understand medical terminology. She immigrated to the U.S. as a child and, while learning English, began interpreting conversations for her Spanish-speaking parents.

"What I experienced growing up was a lot of very serious conversations in chopped-up, broken English," Diaz says. "In the health care setting, that can lead to family members not trusting each other and not trusting their doctors because they don't understand what's being said and feel like they're blindly agreeing to health care decisions."

Diaz doesn't want others to feel that tension and fear. So, across UCSF Benioff Oakland, everyone from doctors and nurses to social workers and therapists can request interpreters to help them communicate with patients and families. The full-time Interpreter services staff responds to nearly 200 requests a day; last year they covered 62,482 patient encounters. 

If in-person or on-call staff aren't available, Diaz and her support staff use a remote LanguageLine interpreter who joins conversations via video chat on a tablet or computer.

"The interpreters are absolutely essential to my job because we serve such a diverse population," says UCSF Benioff Oakland social worker Misty Schultz, who works in the neonatal intensive care unit. "If a non-English-speaking family shows up unexpectedly to visit their baby, I can usually have an interpreter either physically or virtually in the room within minutes to get their needs met."

Culture brokers

Interpreters can act as a bridge for not only language barriers but cultural differences as well. Traditional Chinese medicine, for instance, generally avoids using ice on the body. 

"This kind of cultural difference can really ruin a patient-provider relationship just when patients are starting to develop trust," says Li. "So, in a sense, we act as cultural brokers."

As Oakland's population changes, Diaz and her team are evolving. Mam - a Mayan language spoken by half a million people, mostly in Guatemala - became a need after Oakland's Mam-speaking population soared. More recently, an influx of Yemeni families has led to increased use of Arabic interpretation.

In addition to taking requests from around the hospital through an on-demand service, Diaz's staff consistently scan the hospital's dispatching-appointment system and emergency room roster, flagging patients who have been marked as having a first language other than English. The team prides itself on its breadth of languages and large number of in-person interpreters.

"We're on our feet a lot," says Diaz. "All in-house language requests for interpretation are coming through to our team first before they go out to an outside vendor. We're the ones who know our patients and who know the hospital."

Schultz, who has worked with interpreters at other hospitals, says the strength of UCSF Benioff Oakland's interpreter services helps to build trust across the Oakland community.

"I think our interpreter services make a huge difference," Schultz says.

LanguageLine Can Help

LanguageLine is proud to work with the caregivers at UCSF and across North America. We invite you to learn how our On-Demand audio and video interpreting can help you provide better patient outcomes, while increasing staff productivity and reducing operating costs.

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