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Doctors balk at calling up translators Lack of interest ends plans to test the new service in Fresno.

BY: Barbara Anderson, THE FRESNO BEE, January 11, 2002, Friday

California health officials have pulled the plug on a translator-by-telephone service after not being able to persuade Fresno doctors to use the system for a 90-day trial run.

Fresno specialists were sent letters in October and November asking them to participate in the Central Valley Language Line Pilot Project. Doctors who signed up could dial a toll-free number to reach interpreters in Spanish, Hmong and Vietnamese.

Of the 150 Fresno physicians contacted about the free program, 13 agreed to sign up. The state needed at least 40 doctors to start the service.

Officials scrapped the project in December before a single connection was made between a doctor and an interpreter.

"It was kind of tragic and traumatic to me," said Gregory Franklin, chief of the state Office of Multicultural Health.

Franklin said he expected Fresno doctors would embrace the interpreter service. The California Medical Association was supportive, he said.

The CMA encouraged him to develop the system to address doctors' complaints statewide about the cost of having to hire interpreters for Medi-Cal patients.

"It's just a bizarre thing," Franklin said of Fresno doctors' lack of interest in the pilot project. "Out of 150 [doctors], to not be able to secure 40, especially in the Fresno area."

Merwyn "Mert" Scholten, executive director of the Fresno-Madera Medical Society, said doctors were concerned that a telephone system would be cumbersome and time consuming.

"Many of the doctors who see non-English-speaking patients have mechanisms they've utilized for years and feel they work relatively well," Scholten said.

Telephone interpreters aren't the best answer for patients or doctors, said the Rev. Walt Parry, executive director of Fresno Metro Ministry and chairman of the Local Health Care Coalition, an advocacy group.

A telephone system, however, is better than not having any translation for patients who need it, he said.

Parry said he is concerned the state will get the wrong impression from Fresno doctors' refusal to participate in the telephone-translation service.

"We hope what has happened will not be interpreted as though we do not need interpreters in Fresno County," he said. "It is a major need."

Because of the state budget crisis, Franklin said he doubts an interpreter project would be endorsed today.

The budget for the pilot project was $100,000.

"I don't know when we can do anything like that again," he said.

The reporter can be reached at banderson@fresnobee.com or at 441-6310.