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MAMI, OCC partner to offer medical-interpreter training program

By Journal Staff


SYRACUSE — Understanding a diagnosis or the doctor’s instructions on how to treat an illness are crucial to receiving good health care, but are often a challenge for those who don’t speak or are not yet fluent in English. And while health-care providers are required to offer translation services, there is a shortage of well-trained interpreters to do the job.

That’s why Multicultural Association of Medical Interpreters (MAMI), based in Utica, has partnered with Onondaga Community College (OCC) to offer a new medical-interpreter training program to be held weekends starting Sept. 14. Tuition for the 135-hour course is $1,260, with tuition-assistance funding available for eligible candidates through CNY Works.

MAMI has locations in Utica, Syracuse, and Albany, and Executive Director Cornelia Brown estimates there are about 30,000 refugees from other countries in each of those areas. “We estimate that at least half of those people are limited-English proficient,” she says.

That constraint leads to a host of complications from the patients not being able to tell the doctor exactly what is wrong with them to not understanding the doctor’s treatment plan for their ailment, Brown says. “They may not understand the seriousness of the problem,” she adds.

On top of that, cultural differences often create barriers. Refugees may feel more comfortable using treatments popular in their home country without understanding that those treatments may be risky, she says. Or they may feel it’s impolite to say that they don’t understand something the doctor is saying.

That’s where a well-trained interpreter really comes into play, Brown notes. Not only do these interpreters translate language between the two parties, but they are also trained in the cultural aspects of different countries so that they may also interpret body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues to help ensure the patients truly understand what’s happening in the examination room.

That understanding is not only important for the patient, but also for the health-care provider, who could be held liable if the interpreting services are sub-standard, Brown says. Simply finding someone who speaks the needed language is not enough, she says. They need to understand all the legalities that surround medical interpreting.



The new 135-hour course at OCC will provide that training through a multi-phase approach that not only covers topics such as language and communication dynamics, ethical principles, overview of the health-care system, laws and regulations, medical terminology, and skills for mediating cultural differences, but also provides opportunities for students to practice what they are learning. The program also teaches students how to self-monitor to ensure they are providing accurate interpreting services, Brown says.

Students in the program must be fluent in at least two languages and pass language-skills screening. The $75 cost of the screening will be deducted from tuition once a student registers for the class. Some of the languages that MAMI sees the most need for include Albanian, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Punjabi, Sapo, Somali, and Spanish.

The program needs a minimum of 17 students and can take a maximum of 25, Brown says, adding that she doesn’t think there will be a problem filling the class due to the high need for well-trained interpreters.

To help spread the word about the class, MAMI is reaching out to community centers and other organizations that serve refugees to make people aware of the program. About 95 percent of MAMI’s approximately 150 independent interpreters are former refugees who have become fluent enough in English to offer interpreting services to the roughly 100,000 people that MAMI serves annually.

Brown says her hope is to employ new graduates of the program in one of MAMI’s three locations. Interpreters are typically employed as independent contractors, but can become staff members in time based upon need and performance, Brown notes. MAMI currently employs 35 people between its three locations.

Brown hopes that students graduating from the program will be ready to obtain national certification as a medical interpreter.

Interested students may obtain more information online at or by emailing the college at or MAMI at

Along with the new medical-interpreting program, MAMI is also working to ensure there are enough trained interpreters to help in legal settings. Currently, MAMI has four certified legal interpreters, but is hoping to expand that number with a training course it hopes to hold in the fall or next spring, Brown says.

Headquartered at 309 Genesee St. in Utica, MAMI, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation, reported on its 2011 IRS Form 990 total revenue of $1.4 million, up from just over $1 million the year before. Of that revenue, $1.3 million comes from program service revenue. Typically the health-care providers and other organizations that require interpreter services pay MAMI for the cost of interpreting.

MAMI reported expenses of $1.3 million, up from $942,265 the year before, with $694,937 going toward salaries. MAMI reported a fund balance of $525,323, up from $422,045.


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