My Multilingual Moment with Dirk Stanley

April 11, 2013
Does the bridging of diverse groups within patient care organizations that CMIOs engage in every day have some things in common with what linguistic interpreters do? Dirk Stanley, a CMIO who also happens to be bilingual and bicultural, thinks so.

entrance to the Korean Folk Village, Suwon, South Korea

One of the great things about getting to know Dirk Stanley, M.D., CMIO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital Northampton, Mass., over the past few years has been experiencing his deep and broad intellectual curiosity. Dirk, who has a very diverse background, in medicine (he’s a hospitalist), business management (his bachelor’s degree), database design and statistics (on-the-job training), and of course, informatics, is deeply curious about processes and people. What’s more, he’s bilingual, bicultural, and binational.

I discovered this in our most recent interview a couple of weeks ago, when he casually mentioned his personal background (his father is American and his mother was born in Germany, and he carries dual citizenship and speaks both English and German natively). As our interview concluded, we in fact ended up having a very stimulating and enjoyable conversation about languages and bilingualism and multilingualism, based on his comment that he felt that being bilingual and bicultural has helped him as CMIO, since half of what CMIOs do is to act as translator-interpreters between the IT people and clinicians in their organizations. There’s a certain intellectual and psychological flexibility that emerges naturally out of bilingualism and biculturalism, he believes, and I agree wholeheartedly.

Well, one thing led to another in our conversation, and I ended up telling him a story I’ve told many friends, but haven’t yet told many colleagues, having to do with my acting as an on-the-spot interpreter in a rather complicated daisy chain of languages during a personal visit to South Korea ten years ago. OK, there’s a long back-story to this story, but here’s the gist of it: in 2002, I was visiting South Korea, where I was born (I’m a Korean adoptee who grew up in the United States with American parents; I’ve visited Korea three times as an adult), and was visiting the Korean Folk Village in Suwon, which is about an hour and a quarter from Seoul, with a French-speaking Belgian adoptee.

As it turns out, this adoptee, Sabine, wanted to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Fortress of Suwon, an ancient castle ruin; this site was nearby, but it was difficult to find the information she needed to get to the Fortress. I had been struggling to have a conversation with the admissions clerk at the Folk Village, who spoke Korean and just a few words of English (and probably Japanese as well), when two gentlemen exited the main entrance, one of them Korean and one of them a European. They were speaking German together. I speak just enough German to be able to converse, but am far from fluent. As it turned out, the European man was from Austria, and his Korean colleague was his professional escort in the auto industry; they had stopped briefly at the Folk Village as a side trip.

Well, I saw a chance to get the information I needed for Sabine, so we hastily created a language chain, with Sabine asking me in French the directions and information she needed to get to the Fortress by taxi, and then my relating what she said to the Austrian man, in English, with that man interpreting my comments into German for his Korean host, and that gentleman then explaining in Korean what he had heard to the Korean lady at the gate of the Folk Village. Then we reversed that process to get the information from the Korean lady to my Belgian friend. So, several times, words were spoken in French, then English, then German, then Korean, and back again from Korean to German to English to French. It was laborious, but it worked! And in about ten or so minutes Sabine had the information from the Korean usher lady she needed to get to where she needed to go. WHEW! At the end, we all smiled and chuckled, having pulled off a linguistic feat thanks to a chain of partially shared languages.

Dirk Stanley found this anecdote both amusing and satisfying, and I’m glad to recreate it here. Does it somehow remind you of what you go through in your organization every day? Dirk and I talked in the same conversation about how the barriers between the medieval guild-like disciplines in healthcare (medical specialties, nursing specialties, pharmacy, and many other clinical and non-clinical groups) can make effective communication leading to mutual understanding, very difficult.

I’m certain some of these communication issues (if not multilingualism-related ones!) will come up in the session on the CMIO-CIO relationship that will take place as part of the Healthcare Informatics Executive Summit in May. If you’d like to learn what industry-leading CIOs and CMIOs have to say about the current evolution in that relationship, you’ll definitely want to join us at the Healthcare Informatics Executive Summit. I know the discussion will be a robust one.

In the meantime, it was both validating and enjoyable to discuss with Dirk Stanley some of the commonalities between multilingual communications and what goes on every day in patient organizations nationwide. As Dirk told me, sometimes, doing language interpreting on the spot can be exhausting. And now CMIOs can relate what they do to a whole area of human endeavor. I find such connections fascinating.

Read Dirk Stanley's response to my blog.

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