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Folio Online, based in Cape Town, South Africa, launches a pilot version of Folio InterTel, a telephonic medical interpreter service, at four South African hospitals and one clinic this week

Folio Online

Wednesday, 13 October, 2010

South Africa has eleven official languages and a large immigrant population speaking many African and European languages. There is an overwhelming need for interpretation services in the country, not only at hospitals and clinics, but at refugee centres, police stations and courts.


Folio decided to address the need for medical interpreting in the first instance. Says Folio MD Philip Zietsman, “In mid-2008 I became aware of an increasing demand internationally for telephone interpreters and particularly, medical interpreters. Clearly, South African hospitals and medical institutions would benefit by a cost-effective service of this nature. This is because English and Afrikaans are the languages spoken by most of the medical practitioners, but they are often unable to communicate with their patients in local African languages, let alone those from the rest of the continent. Tragically, what’s lost in translation could be a life.”


Project Manager Marli Viljoen has researched and developed InterTel over the last year. This involved approaching the Department of Health of the Western Cape Provincial Government for their cooperation, and a budget was finally approved just months ago. She recruited interpreters who are mother-tongue speakers of 32 different languages residing both in Cape Town and Johannesburg and arranged for them to be trained in telephonic medical interpreting through MITIO - Medical Interpreting and Translating Institute Online. She has liaised with the superintendents of participating institutions and the medical practitioners who will initially use the system.


The MITIO course was adapted to meet South African requirements, which are typical of much of the third world. Students of the beginner’s course were introduced to the terminology and circumstances surrounding AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and malnutrition, in addition to the normal curriculum. The system utilises current call centre software and interpreters are requested to log on to the system each morning. They can log on and off during the day as and when they become available and calls are routed through to their cellphones. The aim is for the client to have to wait no more than 30 seconds to be linked to an interpreter in the languages of their choice. It is anticipated that the average call duration will be about five to ten minutes. Up to four conversations can take place simultaneously and all calls are recorded.


The majority of the interpreters have tertiary qualifications. Their MITIO medical interpreter training, in addition to equipping them with the necessary vocabulary to deal with their assignments, also provides them with critical psychological, social and communication skills pertaining to the job.


These include: staying calm when breaking bad news; understanding and explaining certain diseases in non-scientific terminology that the patient can comprehend; ensuring that the patient’s symptoms are conveyed to the doctor precisely as they have explained them and not summarising what the patient has said. Interpreters must avoid getting sidetracked into discussions of a non-medical nature with the patient and must also not be tempted to make diagnoses. Furthermore, being a remote service, some of the content of the communication may be lost as what is conveyed in the form of body language cannot be seen by the interpreter.


In the African context, certain cultural considerations are likely to influence the communication that the medical interpreter is endeavouring to convey to both parties. These could include shyness on the part of the patient when it comes to explaining sensitive medical details to a doctor of a different gender. Also, very often patients will have consulted a traditional healer in the initial stages of the disease and have only come to the hospital or clinic when the illness is far advanced. The medical interpreter needs to be aware of these factors.


The 32 languages offered comprise all of South Africa’s 11 official languages together with other languages spoken by immigrants from the rest of Africa such as Shona (Zimbabwe), Swahili (Kenya) and Yoruba (Nigeria). Even Russian and Chinese are offered. Says Marli Viljoen “I am delighted that this project is providing opportunities for our interpreters and I hope that one day soon, medical interpreting will be regarded as a viable career choice for young people who have graduated with degrees in languages.”


The pilot programme will run for three months, after which the service will be offered to more hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and dispensaries in the Western Cape and eventually, throughout South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world.


Folio Online Email: [email protected] Web: www.folio-online.co.za.