HCMC Interpreters Key to a Diverse Patient Population

June 18, 2015 10:39 PM

Communication is a vital part of everyday life, but one department at the Hennepin County Medical Center takes it to the next level. 

The interpreter services department has staff on hand for dozens of languages and is one of the biggest in the nation. 


"Hello" may be a simple greeting, but it connects patients in need with staff at HCMC that have a particular set of skills. 

Whether it's a regular checkup or a life-threatening injury, Paseuth Vang has been an interpreter with HCMC for three years. Vang experienced first hand what it's like to feel helpless and unable to communicate with doctors at an international hospital when his father had a heart attack.

"It can be very, very, very frustrating and crazy," Vang said.

"Someone's life could be at risk if they're not able to communicate," Michelle Chillstrom, director of the HCMC Interpreter Services Department, said. 

Vang navigates room to room as a translating machine in Hmong and French.

When Chillstrom started as the director of this department four years ago, there were about 60 interpreters averaging 130,000 interactions a year. But that number has skyrocketed.

"Now we have close to 130 interpreters and we are looking at 280,000 encounters for 2015, so it's just a tremendous need," Chillstrom said.

Thirty percent of all patients at the hospital use these services but it doesn't have to be face-to-face. In fact, for about a year now, they've ramped up their technology and now can communicate via iPads.

"It's similar to Skype, you can see the face of the interpreter, the interpreter can hear and see you," Chillstrom said. 

Equipped with 100 video mobile units and 22 work stations, HCMC has the ability to cater to more than 70 languages.

"The state of Minnesota is really a Mecca for many immigrants that are coming throughout the world," Chillstrom said. 

Work for many is a means to get by, but for Vang that's hardly the case.

"If I can make a difference every day for people's lives, why not do it," Vang said. 

Hospital staff say Spanish, Somolian and Hmong are the top three most used languages with interpreter services. 


Brett Hoffland

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