Photo of interpreter assisting doctor with patient Medical interpreters assist doctors with patients that either speak little to no English.

Located in one of the most culturally diverse regions in the country, UC Davis Health System faces a growing challenge: how to provide high-quality care to a patient population that increasingly is limited in its English-speaking abilities.

Language barrier

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that one in six Americans speaks a language other than English at home. While most can comfortably speak English when needed, experts estimate that as many as 20 million people — about one in every 15 people in the U.S. — speak and understand little, if any, English.

To address the need of local individuals and ensure they can effectively communicate with their health-care providers, a diverse group of health system staff and administrators came together recently for a breakfast briefing on effective language services, organized around a week-long, worldwide celebration of "International Translators and Interpreters Day."

The breakfast briefing was coordinated and hosted by UC Davis Health System's Speaking Together team. For the past 10 months, they have been participating in Speaking Together: National Language Services Network, a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Its aim is to identify, test and assess strategies for hospitals to provide effective language services to patients with limited English proficiency (LEP). UC Davis is the only medical center in California selected for the program.

Program goal

Photo of medical interpeting staff Medical Interpreting Services staff members and administrators came together recently for a breakfast briefing on effective language services.

"The main goal of the Speaking Together project is to demonstrate that the quality of language services that institutions like UC Davis Health System provide is directly linked to the quality of medical care that patients who are not proficient in English receive," said Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, director of UC Davis' Center for Reducing Health Disparities and the Speaking Together project leader at the health system. "If these patients have difficulty communicating with our medical staff, then they may not be able to relay accurate information like symptoms, underlying health issues, a list of medications they are taking or any allergies they have. It can affect the safety and ultimately the quality of care they receive."

Photo of Ann Madden Rice and Claire Pomeroy

Aguilar-Gaxiola noted that the project is about self-evaluation. "While all hospitals have health-care providers who are bilingual, those providers are rarely assessed for language proficiency," he said. "We're putting a mirror up to our faces to reflect how we're doing and identify areas for improvement."

The Medical Interpreting Services Department at UC Davis Health System provides oral interpreting, written translation, language line, video interpreting, language skills assessment, interpreter training, and cultural presentation services. The department employs 43 interpreters and translators — the largest team of dedicated health-care interpreters in California. The team offers written translation services in seven languages and oral interpreting services in 19 languages. The most requested languages are Spanish, Russian, Hmong and Mien. On average, the department provides interpreters for more than 55,000 patient encounters per year.

For more information about UC Davis Health System's interpreter services, contact Inez Talbott at (916) 734-5395 or e-mail Additional information about the Speaking Together program is available at