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LIJ interprets patients’ needs in 150 tongues

How do you say “Where does it hurt?” in Wolof?

Long Island Jewish Medical Center may boast some of the best-educated doctors in New York, but expecting them to master all of Queens’ languages might be a bit much.

That’s the idea behind LIJ’s telephone-based interpretation service. Using special dual-handset telephones, patients and doctors can sit together, establish eye contact and use body language — important parts of doctor-patient interactions — while an off-site interpreter translates the conversation. The service is available in 150 languages.

According to Jeanne Wiegand, LIJ’s director of telecommunications, the hospital has 23 of the special CyraPhones, either maintained permanently in specific departments or available to be checked out through her department. Although the phones were introduced five years ago, only recently has the program expanded to reach its current levels.

Using the CyraPhones is simple: the doctor or nurse simply picks up the handset and dials a code for the language he or she needs. For commonly spoken languages such as Spanish or Russian, an interpreter is usually available on the line immediately. For more unusual selections such as Wolof, a tribal language spoken in coastal Senegal, the wait time can be up to a half hour. The interpreter who comes on the line can be located anywhere in the country.

Lucila Jiménez, director of patient and guest relations, said that Russian, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Italian and French (tied), and Polish — in that order — are the most frequently requested languages. Twenty-eight languages have been requested so far.

According to Wiegand, the telephones are leased for $8.95 per month each, and translation services cost $2.40 per minute once the interpreter comes on the line.

Despite the expense, Wiegand said, doctors and nurses think it’s well worth the cost because the translators provided are all medically trained. At less well-equipped hospitals and clinics, doctors must often rely on all manner of hospital staff, be they medical or non-medical, to translate.

“This is the absolute perfect application for medical needs of translation,” Wiegand said. “You’re speaking with people who are familiar with medical terminology.”

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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