Doctor with translators
A doctor and two translators simulating a Russian-Hebrew conversation. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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"Abi gezunt" (be healthy ) is a common refrain used by members of the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem when fulfilling the religious commandment of visiting the sick.

But patients from the mostly Yiddish-speaking community who need medical treatment sometimes find it difficult to communicate with the doctors in Hebrew, which they use for prayers only.

In the past decade there has been an increasing awareness in Western countries of the importance of training teams in medical interpretation, in order to improve communication between doctors and patients from different cultures.

The medical system in Israel, an immigrant-absorbing country, has also recently instituted a special training program. After the opening of interpretation courses in Arabic, Russian and Amharic, last month a first course opened in Jerusalem to train interpreters in Yiddish.

"The Israel health system is good, but the issue of cultural competence has skipped us as though it never existed, maybe because it sounds too political or too leftist," said the director general of the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center, Dr. Hagai Agmon-Snir, who initiated the program.

"Maybe it's because of the melting pot concept, which led to a belief that if a patient speaking a foreign language arrives at the hospital, it's preferable that he make an effort to speak Hebrew," said Dr. Michal Schuster, a graduate of Bar-Ilan University's translation studies program, who is participating in the project.

The interpreters' course that began in May for the staffs of the Bikur Holim Hospital in Jerusalem was designed to train medical interpreters in Yiddish, the mother tongue of the ultra-Orthodox patients who use the medical institution. On the obstetrics wards, for example, 80 percent of the women are Haredi.

"It's no secret that as opposed to the 'State of Tel Aviv,' here we have patients from specific populations, and there are patients from the Haredi and Arab populations who are in need of a sensitive attitude in various medical situations," said the medical director of Bikur Holim, Dr. Raphael Pollack. Agmon-Snir says while the patients know a little Hebrew, they shouldn't have to stumble for words when in a hospital setting.

"Theoretically there's no need for interpreters into Yiddish, but there are members of the Haredi community who are capable of expressing their distress more easily in Yiddish, and we should make communication easier for them," the doctor said.

The language training consists of 40 academic hours over a period of six weeks, and is being taught to 36 Bikur Holim nurses and administrators. The course includes introductions to anatomy, in order to become familiar with common medical terms such as EKG or blood count, the study of precision in translating and of medical ethics. The cultural competence course, which is designed for a larger number of staff members, also includes content related to the cultural differences among patients of different origins.

Schuster says that they make sure not to perpetuate stereotypes about minority groups, "instead, we provide tools for dealing with a patient from a different culture, principles of listening and understanding the cultural nuances," she said.

Shake hands

"In the Ethiopian community, at the beginning of treatment the doctor is supposed to stand up and shake the patient's hand," says Dr. Idit Dayan, the coordinator of welfare at the Jerusalem Foundation, which is a partner in planning the project and promoting cultural competence in the Jerusalem health services, and supports it to the tune of hundreds of thousands of shekels annually. "There are Russian doctors who confessed to us that they don't understand the custom, but it constitutes a code of honor in the Ethiopian community, and it helps to improve communications and breaks the ice between the doctor and the patient."

Cultural misunderstandings are liable nowadays to lead to medical negligence claims, and Israeli courts have already dealt with scenarios originating in an absence of cultural competence on the part of medical staffs.

In January 2007, the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court granted compensation of NIS 250,000 to a couple from Bueina-Nujidat in the north, after the woman miscarried and claimed that at Poriya Hospital, where she was under supervision, they were negligent in treating her.

It turned out that during the period of supervision the woman, who is an Arabic-speaker, was given medical explanations in Hebrew. One of the doctors testified at the trial that she had given the expectant mother explanations in Arabic, but it turned out that she had explained the nature of the treatment the woman required at home using only isolated words rather than sentences.

In the ruling, Judge Arnon Darel said "the hospital did not meet its minimal obligation of providing the explanation in a manner understandable to the patient."

The present project began in 2008 with the support of the Jerusalem Foundation, and continued with a pilot in the Alyn Pediatric and Adolescent Rehabilitation Center, when staffs were trained in medical interpretation and directional signs in various languages were posted.

The project has since expanded to the Clalit health maintenance organizations in Jerusalem, especially in the clinics that serve the Ethiopian community, and the Arab community in East Jerusalem.

In the past year the program was also expanded to Hadassah University Hospital at Mount Scopus and at Ein Kerem, and is slated to also be used at the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center.

The profession of medical interpretation is still in its infancy in Israel, but the vision for the future includes the development of a new career path. At Alyn there is already a salaried Arabic interpreter. The increasing awareness of cultural differences and the fear of lawsuits have led the Health Ministry to publish a director general's circular on the subject of cultural and linguistic accessibility in the health system.

According to the circular, by February 2013 all the institutions in the health system will be required to provide medical translation services to patients by means of a professional hotline, by employing cultural experts or by employing staff members who speak foreign languages, after they undergo training, and to refrain insofar as possible from using a family member as a translator.