03/28/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Not All Interpretation Services Are Created Equal

As a result of the devastating earthquake that recently hit Haiti, roughly 40,000 Haitian immigrants will soon arrive in the United States, mainly for medical treatment. However, they'll be going into areas where their native language, Haitian Creole, will act as a barrier to receiving the services they need. Situations like these truly drive home the importance of having properly trained and certified interpreters in the healthcare, legal, education and other sectors. Now is the time to ensure that we can take care of a very vulnerable population.

When you go to a hospital, for instance, you hope to receive the best care and services available. It's not just a personal expectation, either - in America, equal protection under the law for services and treatment is just that, the law. One of the barriers to providing quality care is that a growing number of institutions are hiring language service companies that use independent contractors for interpretation rather than professional interpreting services that have full-time employees.

Language interpreters are the only link between the patient and a doctor during many medical emergencies. A faulty interpretation can mean life or death. Service providers and hospitals that offer certified medical interpreters must be able to schedule, train and supervise the work of the interpreter, something that can't be done by companies that only use contract workers. Just imagine the chaos of not having supervised, trained and scheduled interpreters in a crisis situation like in Haiti. The need for certified medical interpreters is just as necessary every day in the chaotic multi-cultural, multi-lingual world of urban hospital emergency rooms, where any mistake in understanding and communication can have tragic consequences.

The face and language of America are changing. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, Hispanics will make up roughly 24 percent of the total U.S. population. In a major city such as New York City, for example, roughly 48 percent of residents now speak a language other than English at home. A large portion of that is the Spanish-speaking community.

Interpretation services should not be like a dating service, simply linking two people with no responsibility for the outcome. Providing quality interpretation services involves understanding the healthcare marketplace, building relationships with the employees (the interpreters) and most importantly, being able to properly train, supervise and schedule them.

The patient risk issue is grave. Only by using medical interpreters who are properly certified, trained and can be scheduled to respond to crisis situations like the earthquake in Haiti can we ensure the same standard of care as English speakers.

It's time for non-English speakers to speak up in their language and demand better standards for medical interpreters and the institutions that hire them so that their constitutional rights, and more importantly, their lives and those of their loved ones, are not jeopardized.