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Medical interpreters in growing need

Filipino hopes to keep others from suffering due to language barrier

Chunichi Shimbun

As Filipino Anamaria Ogahara can testify, going to a hospital in a country whose language you don’t speak fluently can be a highly challenging and unnerving experience.

Fears about the language barrier prevented Ogahara, a resident in Motosu in Gifu Prefecture, from visiting a local hospital in time, causing a benign tumor in her uterus to rapidly spread.

As a result, the 46-year-old homemaker decided to volunteer as a medical interpreter to help other Philippine residents in Japan from suffering the same fate and to prevent them from experiencing the pain she endured.

“Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK,” Ogahara said, consoling a Filipino woman in a hospital in the city of Gifu in October.

The woman was experiencing lung difficulties, but as the doctor explained her condition she simply stared at the floor desolately because she doesn’t understand Japanese.

When Ogahara intervened and translated the doctor’s diagnosis in Tagalog, the woman felt so relieved she burst into tears.

Ogahara grew up on an isle near Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. After meeting a visiting Japanese national, she decided to move to Japan in 1986 to marry him.

Ten years after arriving in Japan, she began suffering severe menstrual pain and migraines. Ogahara wanted to go to a hospital to receive treatment, but since she still wasn’t fluent in Japanese and didn’t want to make her husband take leave from work, she instead decided to try to bear the pain for as long as possible.

A few months later, however, the pain had become unbearable and she was rushed to the hospital, where its staff identified a benign uterine fibroid tumor. “If you had gone to a doctor sooner, we might have been able to extract it in time,” the hospital’s staff told her.

In the end, she underwent a total hysterectomy.

“The doctor spoke nonstop in rapid Japanese. I did not understand what he was saying and to me, it sounded like he was blaming me,” Ogahara said. “But I had been too afraid to go to the hospital alone.”

This spring, Ogahara learned that Gifu Prefecture was looking for volunteers to work as medical interpreters for its overseas residents. She immediately applied for the program.

Gifu’s volunteer system began on a trial basis in July at 11 hospitals. According to the prefecture’s international affairs division, 15 volunteer interpreters who speak Tagalog, Portuguese and Chinese have been registered so far.

Potential candidates are required to pass an essay writing test and a practical examination to be approved for the program, and they are paid ¥3,000 for each assignment.

Aichi Prefecture also launched the Aichi Medical Interpretations System this fiscal year, covering some 60 hospitals, according to the prefecture’s multicultural society section.

Interpreters in Aichi have been sent to assist non-Japanese speakers in more than 300 cases to date, with the hospitals and patients each covering half of the fee. The prefecture has also started a 24-hour telephone interpreting service, as well as a system to translate medical results into foreign residents’ native languages.

An increasing number of cities nationwide are starting to provide volunteer interpreters for non-Japanese residents as hospitals begin to realize their value.

“Different countries have different ways of providing medical care and running hospitals. I’ve sensed this cultural difference just by comparing the different ways we treat babies,” said Nagoya City University President Hajime Togari, who has also worked as a pediatrician for many years. “It is important to train people who can bridge this cultural gap (and not just interpret terminology).”

Ogahara’s Japanese-language skills have now improved to the point where she no longer experiences any problems in her daily life. Yet she still has difficulty with medical terms, and always scrutinizes a dictionary for days before undertaking any interpreting assignments.

“A patient can feel at ease if there’s someone around who speaks their native language, and knows that someone is on their side,” Ogahara said.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Nov. 5.