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Translating the Art of Medicine

When Maggie Scribner (PH ‘23) walked onto BYU’s campus for the first time, she dreamed of becoming a physician assistant (PA). But for Scribner, pursuing medicine is more than just a career. “I feel the drive to study medicine and to practice medicine [is] more like a calling than anything else,” she reflects.

With this passion for medicine and a desire to serve the Spanish-speaking demographic, Scribner conducted a thought-provoking qualitative study, showing that while medical interpreters are theoretically available to Spanish-speaking patients, there are many obstacles to their ideal use. Her research, "Bridging the Language Barrier—A Qualitative Analysis of Spanish Medical Interpretation between Medical Professionals and Patients,'' won first place for Public Health in the 2023 College Undergraduate Research Awards (CURA).

Noticing Gaps

It was during her first semester in public health classes that Scribner was surprised to learn that "your zip code matters more than your genetic code.” She came to understand that socioeconomic status can determine your life expectancy and health outcomes even more than your genetics.

An older man, dark mustache, black baseball cap, and medium toned skin, holds a little girl in green dress who has her head on his shoulder (positioned behind his head). The man seems to be wearing a gray sweater. The background is blurred with lights above and figures of people.
Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash

With this new awareness, Scribner's eyes were open to see consistent gaps in the care for Spanish-speaking patients (who often held a lower socioeconomic status), while she worked as an emergency room tech. There are over 16 million Spanish speakers in the US who have Limited English Proficiency (LEP), according to the US Census Bureau. Scribner knew that professional medical interpretation was available to LEP patients, but many were being treated without an interpreter. This observation inspired her to assemble an award-winning qualitative study that doubled as her honors thesis.

Garnering public health professor Robbie Chaney’s assistance, she decided to conduct her research by interviewing emergency department nurses and Spanish speakers about their healthcare experiences. Through her interviews, Scribner discovered several recurring themes, identifying what made utilizing interpretation services difficult.

Both medical professionals and patients expressed concern that often medical interpreters do not accurately translate—using the incorrect medical terms or becoming too emotionally involved in the conversation. Interviewees also described the effects of family dynamics on Spanish-speaking patients. While patients feel more comfortable when a family member interprets for them, medical providers expressed concern that family members often misinterpret medical concepts and make it difficult to understand the patients’ perspective.

There are over 40 million Spanish speakers in the U.S. and around 16 million of them have limited English proficiency (LEP).

Timing Challenges

Scribner highlights that one of the greatest challenges voiced by interviewees was the “time-related challenges of language services.” Medical staff do all they can to meet the interpretation needs of their patients, but it can take up to 30 minutes for a medical interpreter to arrive where they are needed.

Delays in getting an interpreter can significantly disrupt a hospital’s workflow and, most importantly, delay patient treatment. A sobering example came up in one of Scribner’s interviews. A nurse recounted a time when a patient came in with stroke symptoms. Strokes must be treated quickly, but because the medical team was waiting for an interpreter, the patient sat in the waiting room for over 15 minutes. Such a delay in treatment can have life-altering consequences for a patient.

The Art of Medicine

Scribner describes her desire to practice medicine as not only a professional pursuit, but a spiritual one. “[It] feels like what God would want me to do is to take care of people on their worst days,” she reflects.

Scribner (center), red curly hair and light skin, poses in a white medical coat, orange shirt and black pants in front of trees (right and center) and a metal bridge (left).
Photo by Maggie Scribner

Scribner articulates that what is often lost in the practice of medicine is the art of medicine. “When I think about the art of medicine,” she considers, “it's about listening to people; it's about helping people feel heard.” That’s hard to do when the patient and medical provider are not fully understanding each other.

Shedding light on obstacles to the care of LEP patients is just one part of Scribner’s efforts to offer effective and compassionate treatment to those who need it most. Now attending PA school at the University of Utah, Scribner is well on her way to providing compassionate and Christ-like care as a medical professional.