Aruna Lee, New America Media
SAN FRANCISO - Two years ago Yoon-hee Kim decided on a career change. After working for nearly a decade in the travel industry, the soft-spoken 38-year-old Korea native enrolled in a one-year medical interpreter program at City College of San Francisco, looking to join an industry that many say will see significant job growth in the coming years thanks to President Obama’s health care reform package passed last year.
“The health care industry is going to see a huge influx of newly insured non-English speaking patients once the health care reform law takes full effect in 2014,” says Kim, whose current employer has seen sales diminish amid the ongoing recession. Kim says she now sees a future in which she can apply her skills to benefiting those in need of medical care.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about one out of four jobs created in the United States through 2018 is expected to be in the health care industry. A recent article in the Washington Post noted that demand for such positions as registered nurses is anticipated to grow by some 23 percent, or 581,000 new jobs, through 2016, with an additional 276,000 openings expected for nursing aides, orderlies and related positions.
For job seekers in a nation with unemployment rates expected to linger above 10 percent, that spells much needed relief.
Much of that growth is credited to the $940 billion Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed last March, which promises a number of significant changes to existing health care laws over the next decade, with most set to take effect by 2014.
Analysts say one of the main results of the changes will be an increase of some 44 million newly insured Americans, more than half of them from immigrant communities where English is not the primary language. For people like Kim, such figures open new doors onto a more promising and fulfilling career opportunity.
The Healthcare Interpreter Certificate Program (HIC) at City College is an intensive two-semester, 15-unit course that trains students in the protocols, basic medical knowledge, terminology and ethics required of a healthcare interpreter.
Hae Won Lee, who runs the program’s Korean language lab, says students learn to apply the skills and knowledge learned in the class through scenario role-plays and by translating various medical documents. All students are required to complete a required number of supervised internship cases with a participating hospital and meet the expected level of competency in order to receive a certificate of accomplishment.
Kim enrolled in the HIC program in 2008, motivated by an increasing sense of job insecurity and a desire to enter into a more socially engaged field. “At the time, there were only four Korean students in the class, and three of them dropped out mid-semester,” says Kim. Because of that, she was forced to forego the program the following term due to the lack of demand for Korean-trained teachers, a reflection of the city’s relatively small Korean community compared to Spanish and Chinese-speaking residents.
“Right now hospitals only offer full-time positions for Spanish and Chinese speaking interpreters,” Kim notes, “while most Korean interpreters work on-call for $50 per session.” Because of such low demand, Kim opted to hold on to her current job for the time being while she completes her mandatory internship.
Still, statistics show that among minority voters, most of which are in favor of the health care legislation, support among Korean Americans is notably high. A multi-lingual poll commissioned by New America Media last year showed some 67 percent of Korean American respondents, who have the lowest rate of employer-based coverage in the country, strongly in favor of the reform package. The new changes are expected to lead to a rise in insurance coverage for Korean Americans and a spike in demand for trained Korean-language interpreters.
Ricky Choi, head of the pediatrics department at the Alameda County Asian Health Center, says that for Koreans especially language access presents the biggest obstacle to receiving medical care and that the need for trained Korean interpreters is particularly acute. “Once the health care reform law goes into effect demand for interpreters is certainly going to climb,” Choi, who is Korean American, adds.
Nora Goodman is head of the HIC program at CCSF. She says being a medical interpreter is like being a counselor to patients whose cultural differences often impede the provision of quality medical care. “Many immigrants suffer from depression and other mental health issues… Students have to understand these and other cultural issues” on top of being able to interpret basic medical terminology. “I want students to be fully present, to be respectful, and to work with their full heart in response to the needs of the community."
For Kim, being an interpreter has meant becoming a part of the often heart-wrenching narratives of her clients. As part of her internship, she translated for a middle-aged man suffering from lung cancer. The family had relied on their 22-year-old daughter, whose own English was insufficient to deal with the increasingly complicated medical terminology being employed by the care provider. Kim described the father as a “very brave man” who immigrated to the United States three years ago “full of hope,” saying that he refused to give that up as he reached over to console his teary-eyed daughter. “At that point, it became hard for me to control my own tears,” Kim says.
As congressional Republicans attempts to repeal Obama’s health care reform law, they would do well to consider that on top of the estimated $500 billion in savings expected to come from the changes over the next decade, for Kim and others like her the new law highlights the fact that job growth and healthy communities are two sides of the same coin.