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Working to reduce language barriers in health care

A group of students started Vocalize Columbus, a free medical interpretation service for people who need it most
Lia Gomez-Perez
Lia Gomez-Perez, chief executive officer of Vocalize Columbus, started the project with four other students during their first year at Ohio State (photo: Logan Wallace).

How do we improve the Columbus community?

This was the question five students considered during their freshman year as part of the Eminence Fellowship, which is awarded to 25 honors students each year in an effort to cultivate leaders who will effect positive change in their professions and communities.

Their answer?

Vocalize Columbus: a free medical interpretation service for people who need it most.

The idea for Vocalize Columbus came from a place of curiosity and personal experience. At 6 years old, Chief Executive Officer Lia Gomez-Perez emigrated from Uruguay to the United States, where she grappled with the challenges a language barrier imposes on everyday life.

With four other fellows, Lia undertook research on language barriers in a health care setting. The fellows learned that many free clinics, where language interpretation services are needed most, are unable to provide interpreters due to financial constraints.

Tens of thousands of people with limited English-speaking skills live in Columbus alone. When they need medical care, that language barrier can interfere with quality of care and health outcomes.

While the fellowship cohort chose to focus on a different initiative, these five students decided to pursue this project on their own. In September 2021, Vocalize Columbus partnered with Columbus Cancer Clinic (CCC) to offer language interpretation for Spanish-speaking patients.

A health care worker and a patient use the Vocalize Columbus medical translation service at LifeCare Alliance in Columbus.

Columbus Cancer Clinic provides free medical care to underserved individuals in central Ohio, specializing in full-body cancer scans and cancer prevention education.

“With an average of 35% of the patients we serve each month speaking Spanish, this added resource is invaluable,” Practice Manager Kimberly Hulsey says.

Vocalize Columbus offers its services through video calls, which allows flexibility for patients and volunteers. The technology also empowers people from around the globe to help — with the farthest volunteer living in Spain.

As of mid-2022, Vocalize Columbus has recorded 249 hours of volunteer time and saved the Columbus Cancer Clinic $52,141. The organization recently partnered with another clinic in Columbus and plans to grow more in the coming months, expanding to Cleveland and San Antonio, Texas.

“Being able to alleviate the burden of interpretation costs at clinics like CCC and help them better serve their limited English proficiency (LEP) patients drives our team to keep expanding Vocalize across the country in order to reach as many patients and caregivers as possible,” Lia says. “Every person, regardless of language proficiency or socioeconomic status, deserves access to quality care.”

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