Alberta Cancer Foundation

New Canadians: Feeling Heard

Illustration by Emily Chu.

Clear communication between patients and health-care workers is paramount when navigating the chaotic fog that can settle in during cancer treatment. It’s essential that patients feel they are heard by their medical team so they can trust the people responsible for their care. Patients must also feel informed and empowered to understand biopsy results, treatment options and a new lexicon of medical terminology from the outset.

For one in six Albertans born outside of Canada — whose first language is often not English — navigating the health-care system can feel nearly impossible. Preventing this potential communication fracture between health-care workers and new Canadians undergoing treatment is the mission of the AHS Interpretation and Translation Services Program.

“Professional interpreting and translation ensure that our staff have the best opportunity for clear and accurate communication with our patients,” says Louise Behiel, manager, AHS Interpretation and Translation Services. “The best health outcomes happen when the clinician and the patient speak the same language.”

Behiel has managed the program for the past 12 years. All AHS employees, including paramedics and public health inspectors, can use the program, which has been around for close to two decades. There are four main services available to help bridge a potential communication gap with new Canadians.

1. American Sign Language (ASL) Interpretation

Behiel’s team will arrange to have a sign language interpreter physically present during appointments and also offers sign language interpreters via video stream in some AHS locations.

2. Telephone Interpretation

This service is what the program is primarily known for and is offered at all AHS facilities.

AHS employees dial a 1-800 number, key in an access code and, within 30 seconds (on average), a professional medical translator fluent in the patient’s first language is conferenced into the conversation. Behiel says interpreters are specifically trained to convert complex medical terminology from English to one of 240 available languages, making the vendor’s translation accuracy exceptional. The program provided more than 125,000 minutes of telephone translation in 85 languages in one month alone (Oct. 2019).

“Google Translate works great if you’re making a hotel reservation or setting up an appointment, but telling someone they have a certain type of cancer — you don’t trust that to A.I.,” Behiel says.

3. Document Translation

Most of the requests for document translation come from physicians who need portions of medical records written in a foreign language translated to English. Behiel says doctors want to understand if the person has received any tests or treatments before coming to Canada. For those about to undergo cancer treatment, their Albertan care team must know their relevant medical history.

“The idea is that we can diminish costs and patient stress by knowing what was done and what the outcomes were,” Behiel says.

4. Language-Proficiency Testing

This service is for AHS staff members and rounds out the program’s services. Behiel says managers at AHS facilities, including all those providing cancer care, need to know if their staff can accurately communicate with patients in languages other than English. Patients will often see a health-care worker that appears to be from their birth country and will start conversing with them in their first language. Wanting to help, the AHS staff member will often become the patient’s de facto interpreter, which is great if they are still fluent in the patient’s language. But often they are rarely using Mandarin or Hindi (for example) in their day-to-day lives.

“The risk is if you don’t use your first language regularly and consistently, you lose it,” Behiel says. “And if you don’t speak the language fluently and accurately, then you put our patients at risk.”

Behiel says approximately 20 per cent of staff tested fail the Language Proficiency Testing. If that happens, they are told by management not to converse in that language with patients. Behiel says it’s nothing personal, and often staff are surprised to find out they are no longer fluent in their first language.

“This is all about making sure our managers know that their staff are appropriately communicating with our patients,” she says. “We also want our patients to be assured they’re getting good advice and good information no matter what language they speak.”

Behiel says demand for all of the program’s services continues to grow as her team builds awareness internally through presentations and promotion. Behiel and her team host webinars, presentations and lunches for AHS staff and more.

The Interpretation and Translation Services Program is dedicated to equipping AHS staff with the communications resources they need to fully connect with patients, ensuring the best outcomes.

“This is all about patient-centred care. To reduce the risk to our patients, we have to assist our staff and make sure they’ve got the best resources,” says Behiel.

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