Seton to scale back on-site interpreters, increase virtual translations

Bilingual attention sign in a hospital (KXAN Photo)
Bilingual attention sign in a hospital (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Critics say unreliable technology will now be the standard for Seton Healthcare when it comes to Spanish-speaking translation services. Next month, Seton Healthcare will transition to what it calls a more virtual model of care.

A petition has popped up in response, stating, patients “will be left with a less-than-ideal way to express the reason for their visit, their medical history, and current medications to doctors and nurses. They will not be able to fully express themselves to their healthcare providers unless we do something about it.” At last check, the petition has garnered more than 800 signatures.

KXAN brought the concerns directly to Seton, whose Chief Advocacy Officer Geronimo Rodriguez said, “We’re excited to be expanding our language services to meet the language needs of our limited English proficient community.”

Seton Healthcare calls the transition to virtual translations, like over the phone and through video on iPads, an opportunity to improve patient care and have more options readily available. “We’re going to provide an interpreter at the right time, at the right place, to every single patient that needs it,” Rodriguez said.

But the move will mean fewer on-site interpreters, what those signing the petition, take the biggest issue with.

The petition states, “While Seton has lauded new technology, telephonic and video interpreter technology is not new and are the same unreliable services that currently are not used throughout the hospitals for the same reason. Remote interpreting is not appropriate for trauma situations, triage, patient education, consents, end-of-life scenarios, discharges, special needs patients, and written translations of discharge instructions unless an on-site interpreter absolutely cannot be available. Unreliable technology will now be the Seton standard.”

Rodriguez  said, “We’re going to try to make sure that the most complex cases have in person interpreters.”

Manuel Higginbotham helped organize and build Seton’s Language Services Department back in 2013 and agrees there is something lost when technology takes over on-site interpreters.

“When you don’t have 24/7 staff coverage or on site interpreter coverage, then those patients are even further marginalized,” Higginbotham said. “Technology does fail. And video/remote interpreting is dependent upon having an excellent wireless connection. Seton does not always have great wireless connections in all areas of their buildings.”

Seton said if that were to occur, they would use the options available over telephone.

KXAN asked Higginbotham if, in his role as the Texas Association of Healthcare Interpreters & Translators President, they were seeing hospital systems in other parts of the state follow a trend of increasing virtual interpreter options and scaling back on on-site interpreters.

“Absolutely not. Emphatically ‘no’ as a matter of fact, quite the opposite is true,” he said. “Hospitals are developing and hiring interpreters, not cutting them. For sure.”

Interpreters KXAN spoke with did not want to go on camera because they want the opportunity to reapply for open positions. One person said right now, each hospital has 5-6 on-site interpreters. With the changes, only about 1 on-site interpreter per hospital is anticipated. Seton would not confirm that information, nor would it provide the current number of on-site interpreters Seton employs.

A post on the Texas Association of Healthcare Interpreters and Translators (TAHIT) Facebook page says 67 interpreters have been dismissed from Seton Healthcare and only 13 full time employees will be rehired. Seton would not confirm whether those numbers were accurate, saying, “The number is in flux right now because of trying to figure out what the needs are.”

Rodriguez continued on to say, “As these numbers are fluxing, we’re going to always make sure that we’re meeting the patient needs.”

The changes will go into effect Feb. 12.

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