Annual Conference for Medical Interpreters

June 27, 2022

The Paving the Way Team: Lynn DeCouto, Bindiya Jha, Laisson Desouza, Lisa Morris, Lynn Carson, Joanne Calista, Silvana Kirby, Gricelle Cruz

Medical interpreters turn out in force to learn, network, and prepare for the future at Paving the Way to Health Care Access Conference

Commonwealth Medicine hosted the Annual Paving the Way to Health Care Access Conference this June, and its virtual format didn’t deter attendees from 15 states and 60 organizations, representing 27 languages. The conference’s speakers, award presentation, and workshops attracted some 200 medical interpreters and managers as well as spoken language and American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters on both days of the event—a testament to the resilience of those gathered for one of the nation’s premier language access conferences.

The virtual format, in its third year, also reflects one of the challenges attendees are tackling in a profession altered by COVID-19—the movement toward fully remote interpretation services.

“We’re concerned that with fewer in-person, face-to-face interactions between medical interpreters and patients and families, some of our best practices developed over the years are diminished,” said Lisa Morris, MSTD, director of Cross-Cultural Initiatives at Commonwealth Medicine and conference organizer. “Language services with the personal touch that skilled interpreters provide help ensure patient care quality and safety.”

Colombo Praises Attendees’ Professional Commitment and Resilience

Commonwealth Medicine’s Executive Vice Chancellor Lisa M. Colombo, DNP, MHA, RN, welcomed attendees to the conference, noting the pandemic’s influence on the profession. “The need for qualified and certified medical interpreters in health care settings to reduce language barriers and health disparities has become increasingly urgent since the pandemic.”

Colombo noted that medical interpreters are “stretched thin, delivering interpretation in many places virtually, that, combined with health care facilities eliminating in-house interpretation departments, means fewer face-to-face interactions.

“Medical interpreters bring language fluency, understanding of complex diagnoses and treatment and privacy laws, cultural knowledge, and sensitivity,” Colombo said. “They know how to read a moment and when to step in to help reduce risks associated with misunderstanding a diagnosis or a treatment plan.”

Colombo praised the group for taking steps to become more knowledgeable about remote interpreting and remaining nimble both in this shifting landscape and as the volume of their work has increased. The number of people in the US who speak a language other than English at home has tripled since 1980, she observed.  

“Because of this, I urge you to encourage others to follow your path to ensure equitable health care for all.”

Keynote Speakers Inspire and Empower Conference Participants

Colombo was followed by one of the conference’s two keynote speakers. Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie, MSW, director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement for the State of Oregon, is a consultant and trainer committed to raising awareness about meaningful and equitable language access. She told attendees in her address titled “Be…longing” that this access is achieved when both interpreters and health care providers have a shared understanding of what an effective language access framework looks like.

The conference’s other keynote speaker, Vonessa Phillips Costa, encouraged participants to identify their personal role in language access quality improvement at the individual or institutional level and explained how they could find their mark, improve their stride, and sustain progress through strategic partnerships. Credentialed by the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and a CCHI Commissioner since 2020, Costa is senior director of Quality and Member Engagement for the Health Care Interpreter Network.

Award for Interpreter Advocate and Impressive Slate of Workshops

Costa is also a 2019 MassAHEC Tony Winsor Award recipient; the award, named for an attorney who, among many achievements, advocated for professionalizing the work of medical interpreters to improve language access, is presented each year at the conference. This year, attendees celebrated Avlot Quessa, an interpreter educator for Cambridge Health Alliance.

Quessa helped develop some of the first training tools for Haitian interpreters available anywhere, as well as numerous cultural and linguistic education modules for health care providers and support staff. He has expanded healthcare access for limited-English proficient patients and helped raise the profile of health care interpreters.

Along with the keynote addresses and award presentation, the conference included a vast array of workshops led by a diverse slate of experts. Workshops were designed to enhance interpreting skills, raise culturally sensitive awareness in medical settings, and reinforce what physicians and interpreters can learn from each other.

Twenty-two workshops were conducted over the two-day conference, with subjects ranging from Reframing Systemic Change in Healthcare for ASL interpreters and When Disruption Leads to Modernization and Improvement to Diversity Matters in Health Care: What Language Access Professionals Can Do and Training Interpreters about Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Data.

Next year’s conference is scheduled for June 2023. For more information, email Lisa Morris, director of Cross Cultural Initiatives at Commonwealth Medicine.