Spreading the Word on Translation

Language skills alone may not be enough for a reader who aims to become a health-care interpreter

I'm fully bilingual in English and Hmong. I would like to start a business helping the growing Hmong population locally by interpreting for medical personnel at hospitals. How can I get contracts from insurance providers or government agencies to use my services for their patients? -- M.H., Milwaukee

You've got a promising business idea that you're well-positioned to pursue, particularly in an area where there are likely to be language barriers that you can help bridge. However, you'll need to do some more work before you are prepared to start thinking about winning contracts, experts say.

"Being bilingual is, on its own, not enough" to become a health-care interpreter, points out Christine Durban, a Paris-based translator and columnist. "You must be at ease with the subject matter itself...especially in the life and death situations you are likely to encounter in health care." Along with the fact that it's likely your company will need to comply with state regulations regarding training and experience, interpreting is in itself a learned skill, with its own ethics, protocols, and techniques.

"Untrained interpreters tend to add, omit, or change meaning, become overly invasive in the patient-provider relationship, and have difficulty with health-care terminology," says Cynthia Roat, a Seattle-based author, consultant, and nationally recognized trainer on issues related to language access in health care.


  Your first order of business, therefore, is to explore some training in health-care interpreting. "These [courses] needn't take years and years, and will give [you] the fundamentals needed to serve the community properly, avoiding potential catastrophes while building your business," Durban says. She recommends contacting the American Translators Assn. for more information about classes in your area. Austin (Tex.)-based interpreter Esther Diaz notes that hospitals and language-service providers often provide training for their employees and/or contractees, so you might explore those possibilities also.

Once you have the proper training, you'll want to decide whether to contract directly with hospitals and clinics, or whether you would do better by contracting with an existing local language-service provider, Roat says. "In general, health-care interpreters are paid for by the health-care institution, not the insurance carrier, which means brokering contracts with a lot of hospitals, clinics, and agencies. By signing with an agency that already has contracts, you save yourself time and energy, though you may receive a lower per-hour rate," she notes.


  If you choose to contract directly with the service providers, find out who's responsible for interpretation services at institutions in your area that serve large numbers of Hmong speakers, suggests Cindy Malouin, whose Los Angeles-based Malouin Marketing specializes in the medical industry. Compile a database of these individuals, then send a letter of introduction to them and follow up with a telephone call explaining your qualifications.

"As your business develops, word-of-mouth referrals will be especially important. Maintain a steady stream of communication to your database of contacts through an e-mail newsletter or regular mailings," Malouin says. "Content could include tips on how to effectively communicate with the Hmong population and insights into cultural and family traditions that may impact patient care."

She also suggests that you explore the Web site of the American Hospital Association for more information. Good luck!

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