By Dustin Brown
Wyckoff Heights Medical Center signed an agreement last week to revamp its translation services to better accommodate a growing body of non-English speaking patients, settling a community group's year-old complaint over the hospital's handling of immigrant patients' needs.
The agreement, brokered by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, calls for the hospital, located on the border of Queens and Brooklyn, to offer an array of resources to help patients who are not fluent in English, most notably improving face-to-face interpretation, Spitzer said.
“We're pleased that we were able to craft innovative, cost-effective agreements that will greatly enhance the ability of patients with limited English proficiency to communicate their health care needs and receive the best care,” Spitzer said in a release. “We hope these agreements will serve as models for other health care providers confronted with the challenges of serving linguistically diverse communities.”
The agreement, announced at a press conference Monday, comes one year after the Brooklyn community organization Make the Road by Walking lodged a discrimination complaint with Spitzer's office, accusing the hospital of failing to provide adequate translation services.
The group, which based its claims on interviews with Spanish-speaking patients that showed a majority did not understand their doctors, applauded the hospital for its proactive response to its concerns.
“Wyckoff Heights Medical Center has been very energetic and open to trying to make some changes once they realized there was a problem,” said Andrew Friedman, the co-director of Make the Road by Walking. “The proof will really be in the pudding over the coming year to see how these changes are implemented, what kind of accountability the attorney will demand of these hospitals, how receptive the hospitals are to us reporting new incidents and problems to them.”
Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn, also named in the group's complaint, made a similar agreement with Spitzer.
Figures from the 2000 U.S. Census show that among the people who live around the hospital, which is located in Bushwick only a block from the Ridgewood border, 75,000 speak English “not well” or “not at all.” Most of those are Spanish-speakers, although others also speak Polish, Chinese, Fresh Creole and several South Asian languages.
Wyckoff has hired a language coordinator who will supervise and monitor the services and ensure the hospital meets patients' language requirements, officials said.
Although the hospital already had “significant language assistance resources available,” Spitzer said the services failed to meet patients' needs because of gaps in coordination, monitoring and training for staff members.
“They weren't being utilized effectively for whatever reason,” said Edward Kulesa, the hospital's external affairs director. “That's what we had to fix. It was there and we just needed to take it to the next level.”
Under the terms of the agreement, the hospital will provide designated staff to serve as interpreters – who will be given mandatory training in medical interpretation – as well as telephonic interpretation services at all times. Patients would be allowed to choose their own interpreters, such as members of their own family, and translations would be offered for key documents and hospital signs.
U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-Ridgewood), an advocate for language assistance programs, lauded the agreement when she stood with Spitzer at the press conference.
“These small changes will have a big impact on the health and lives of many individuals in my district,” she said. “It is truly an issue of life and death.”
Friedman said he hopes other borough hospitals will follow suit and examine their own translation services.
“Throughout Queens there's a number of hospitals all of which have high immigrant patient populations,” Friedman said. “It's really important for other hospitals to look at these agreements and start taking seriously the issue of providing equal access to their services for all New Yorkers.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.