updated 9/14/2006 6:18:46 PM ET 2006-09-14T22:18:46

New York will require all hospitals to provide skilled translators amid fears that family members can be unreliable translators for non-English speaking patients.

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The reliance on friends and family to translate for patients — a common practice in exam rooms — can interfere with medical care, advocates say. A well-intentioned niece may hesitate to share upsetting news, or a patient might not disclose symptoms for fear of alarming their child. In other cases, information may just get garbled.

"It impedes the ability for information to flow freely and violates patient confidentiality laws," said Adam Gurvitch, director of health advocacy at the New York Immigration Coalition, which pushed for the new regulations that took effect Wednesday.

Most hospitals will likely rely on volunteers, bilingual staff and telephone translation agencies to meet the new rules, he said. There are no state or federal standards for what qualifies as a "skilled" medical interpreter.

Jeffrey Hammond, spokesman for the state Health Department, said the regulations will be enforced through the state's regular onsite visits and by investigating patient complaints to the department's hot line.

Previously, hospitals were required to provide interpreters for all patients, but the broad wording allowed them to count children and relatives as translators, Gurvitch said. The new regulations clarify those terms and requires hospitals to appoint language coordinators and identify a patient's primary language on medical records.

Patients could still choose to use friends or relatives as interpreters, but only after they refused translators provided by the hospital.

Children under 16 may not be used, except in emergencies.

Most hospitals — particularly those in cosmopolitan areas — already have practices in place to prevent the use of family as interpreters, said Bill Van Slyke, spokesman for the Healthcare Association of New York State, which represents the state's hospitals and nursing homes.

The use of telephone translation agencies in particular is becoming more common, he said.

That is the case at Albany Medical Center, which as a policy does not use family members or any untrained interpreters as translators. The center instead relies heavily on a 24-hour phone translator service and contracts with an outside agency to provide face-to-face translations and accommodations for the hearing impaired.

Earlier last year, the New York Immigration Coalition asked the state to take legal action against four metropolitan area hospitals for failing to provide interpreters for emergency patients.

The advocacy group said it documented dozens of cases where patients who didn't speak English faced life-threatening medical crises, including cases of doctors using cab drivers to interpret vital medical information.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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