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Local Refugees Need Greater Access to Interpreters for Primary Care

Becca Schimmel

Refugees facing language barriers are entitled to an interpreter when they go to the doctor, but what many don’t understand is that the responsibility of providing an interpreter falls on the medical provider.


When a refugee, immigrant, or anyone who isn’t fluent in English goes to the doctor, that provider is required to make an interpreter available. It’s a right secured by the federal Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on national origin.

Refugee Health Coordinator for the Kentucky Office of Refugees, Rebecca Ford, said it’s not widely known that the law is interpreted to mean that medical providers must offer an interpreter at a medical appointment at no cost to the patient. 

“And so we see sometimes providers asking for the client to bring a friend to interpret for them, or rescheduling an appointment and saying you have to bring an interpreter next time, but that really is on the provider,” she told WKU Public Radio.  

Ford said one of the greatest tools used to diagnose a patient is communication. She said it can be costly both financially and to the health of the refugee when they can’t talk to their doctor. 

“They’ll delay appointments if they don’t have an interpreter, or they’ll go to the emergency room where they know they can get an interpreter, and that is the most expensive form of health care,” she said.   

An interpreter doesn’t have to be physically present during a doctor’s visit. The service can be offered over the phone. 

Becca Schimmel is a Becca Schimmel is a multimedia journalist with the Ohio Valley ReSource a collaborative of public radio stations in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio. She's based out of the WKU Public Radio newsroom in Bowling Green.
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