Need An Interpreter? Just Pick Up The Phone

Carla Crossin shows Tony Hernandez-Guerrero her hospital's over-the-phone translation service i i

Carla Crossin, a pediatric nurse at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, Va., shows Tony Hernandez-Guerrero, holding his 9-week-old son, Jose, the hospital's over-the-phone translation service. The pharmacy chain Rite Aid has become the first pharmacy chain in the U.S. to sign up for phone interpretation in all its stores. Eva Russo/AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch hide caption

itoggle caption Eva Russo/AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch
Carla Crossin shows Tony Hernandez-Guerrero her hospital's over-the-phone translation service

Carla Crossin, a pediatric nurse at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, Va., shows Tony Hernandez-Guerrero, holding his 9-week-old son, Jose, the hospital's over-the-phone translation service. The pharmacy chain Rite Aid has become the first pharmacy chain in the U.S. to sign up for phone interpretation in all its stores.

Eva Russo/AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch

If businesses want to speak the language of their clients, it doesn't have to mean hiring bilingual workers.

Imagine being able to pick up a phone and connect to an interpreter in just about any language. Hospitals have long used such services. Now, such phone-based interpretation may also be gaining traction in the marketplace.

The pharmacy chain Rite Aid is currently testing phone-based interpretation services in a couple dozen of its locations. It eventually plans to offer phone-based interpretation services in all of its stores nationwide.

"Obviously, with the critical nature of health care, and medications and their side effects, it's much better to speak to customers in their native tongue," says Scott Jacobson, Rite Aid's director of pharmacy operations.

As an example, he points to doctors' prescriptions that call for taking medication "once daily." The word "once" in Spanish means 11.

The interpretation service allows a pharmacist to get a trained medical interpreter on the line to mediate a conversation with a client.

At a Rite Aid in Falls Church, Va., recently, a pharmacist used the service to explain to a customer why the insurance company wouldn't automatically pay for a certain cough medicine.

In this store, as in two dozen others, Rite Aid is testing out special dual handset phones. The customer uses one handset to speak to an interpreter over the phone, while a pharmacist listens in on the other handset. Jacobson says the setup's key advantage is allowing pharmacist and client to stand face to face.

"Oftentimes, body movement can cross that foreign barrier as well," he says, "so it tends to help."

This spring in New York state, seven pharmacy chains were forced to boost language access after a civil rights complaint. But as the country's large immigrant workforce heads into old age, with all its aches and maladies, Rite Aid says it hopes that offering language interpretation services nationwide makes good business sense.

When companies speak to customers in their native language, "they're four times more likely to buy a good or a product or a service from that company," says Louis Provenzano, the head of Language Line, one of the largest phone interpretation services and the company Rite Aid has signed up with.

Language Line has 8,000 interpreters posted around the globe; together, they provide service in 176 languages. Clients include police departments, insurance companies, banks and government agencies.

Still, the average cost of phone interpretation is $1.40 a minute, and some businesses have been cutting back during the recession. At the Falls Church, Va., Rite Aid store, one customer said he didn't have time to fiddle with the phone. It was a good idea, he said, but he preferred to stick with his broken English.

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