As medical interpreter funds run out, Waterloo MPP urges health minister to step up

After calls from the community, Waterloo MPP Catherine Fife has written to Ontario's health minister to ask for more funds for medical interpreters for refugees in Waterloo region.

'We are denying them access to the appropriate healthcare,' MPP Catherine Fife says

Portrait of Catherin fife
Waterloo MPP Catherine Fife, a member of the Ontario NDP, said that a lack of funding for medical interpreters puts strain on not only patients, but the health-care system as a whole. She's calling for more funding for the program after two local agencies that provide the service said they'll have to suspend it due to lack of money. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

As funding for medical interpreter services runs dry in Waterloo region this week, Waterloo MPP Catherine Fife has written a letter to Ontario's health minister to ask for help.

"The medical interpretation issue has been a longstanding issue and it seems that we continually have to fight for these basic levels of service," Fife said in an interview with CBC News.

Medical interpretation is a service provided to non-English speakers to help make health-care appointments a smoother process. Fife said patients who need the service should be assured that they understand the care they're receiving, but it also helps the medical professionals understand the patient's medical issues and perform proper diagnoses.

"If you are ill and you go to your doctor and you can't accurately communicate what you are suffering from, this leads to the healthcare system guessing," Fife said.

"Communication is one of those basic pillars of an accurate and honest health-care system."

Fife said the service is beneficial outside of the examination room, too. The service helps to lower the cost put on the health-care system by ensuring patients receive appropriate care, lowering the level of hospital re-admissions and saving doctors from performing unnecessary diagnostic tests.

"My hope is that the minister of health receives the letter and listens to the community advocates who are on the front lines," Fife said. "This is a smart investment to ensure that medical interpretation happens in Ontario."

CBC News has reached out to Ontario's Health Minister Sylvia Jones for comment but has not yet received a response.

'An untenable situation'

The K-W Multicultural Centre announced it would have to suspend its interpretation service this week. Due to high demand, funds for interpreters have run out with three months left in the fiscal year, the centre's CEO Lucia Harrison said.

Two years ago, the centre receive $300,000 in funding for interpreters, but that has since been cut in half, she said. In order to continue the service until the spring, the centre has begun fundraising. 

Similarly, Kitchener's Centre for Family Medicine has had to turn to the community for support.

"That's an untenable situation to depend on volunteers to share medical information. Some of that information is sensitive," Fife said. "It's not appropriate and it really runs counter to our values as a society."

The Centre for Family Medicine's director of community initiatives said they receive $100,000 in funding for medical interpretation services, but in order to properly run the program they need closer to $450,000.

"We have to acknowledge that the demographics of our region are changing. We are receiving more refugees and immigrants from around the world," Fife said.

"We are accepting them into our community and then we are denying them access to the appropriate health care."


Cameron works at CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. For story ideas, you can contact him at

With files from Carmen Groleau