MassAHEC Network and state collaborate on medical training for sign language interpreters

December 18, 2014

The rising demand for American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters who have the proficiency and comfort to perform in a health care setting led to the development of a new training program offered by UMass Medical School, MassHealth, and the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

The 16-hour program, An Introduction to Medical Interpreting, debuted this fall and will be offered again next spring. The program teaches American Sign Language interpreters with little to no medical training how to work with medical terminology, clinical procedures, and ethical issues in health care settings.

“The demand for ASL interpreters with extensive knowledge of health care situations is higher than the commission can supply,” said Lisa Morris, MS, director of Cross-Cultural Initiatives at UMass Medical School’s Massachusetts Area Health Education Center (MassAHEC) Network. MassAHEC is a unit within the Commonwealth Medicine division.

Finding a doctor who uses communication supports such as ASL interpreters, CART reporters and other aids was reported as a big problem by more than 50 percent of those who responded to a health needs assessment of people with disabilities in Massachusetts. The assessment, the results of which were released in April, wasconducted by researchers at UMass Medical School’s Disability, Health and Employment Policy Unit and the Health and Disability Program at the state Department of Public Health.

The idea for the new training program was conceived about two years ago after the commission received complaints that interpretations for deaf patients weren’t consistently accurate, and that many interpreters themselves felt unqualified to accept medical assignments, Morris said. Some sign language symbols, for example, don’t mean the same thing when taken literally. For example, the trunk of the body needs to be interpreted differently from the trunk of a car. If the interpreter doesn’t question the information, “you may not get the appropriate interpretation,” Morris said.

The new program comprises four components of training. ASL interpreters receive an overview of the office visit that explains how health care providers diagnose and treat patients, are trained in legal and ethical issues, are introduced to typical medical terms, and learn how to handle stressful incidents. Sections of the class were also co-taught by two native American Sign Language experts so that terminology that is difficult to visually interpret could be explored.

“We received overwhelming positive reviews from the interpreters who attended the training. We will do a follow-up assessment in three to four months to see how they are using what they learned in the field. We plan to collaborate with MassAHEC to repeat the course and to develop new ones, including an intensive training in behavioral health,” said Tricia Ford, deputy commissioner for Programs and Policy for the commission. “We will collaborate with MassAHEC to invite ASL interpreters to their annual medical interpreter conference, Paving the Way, on June 19. This will continue to increase the health care knowledge of ASL interpreters.”

MassAHEC has run a statewide training program for speaking medical interpreters in partnership with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services for the past 15 years. Fundamentals of Medical Interpreting is a 60-hour course offered at six regional MassAHEC offices in the fall and spring, and occasionally summer. It is geared to staff at health care facilities that serve patients enrolled in MassHealth, the Massachusetts Medicaid program.