Medical Interpreter Services: Best Practices for Communicating Through an Interpreter

Business, Language Service Provider (LSP), Medical

In today’s healthcare culture, proper communication is as important as the information being conveyed itself. This is because medical care involves patients being handed off between providers, departments, and facilities, as well as interactions with multiple administrative and care professionals with various levels of training. Every handoff involves an exchange of information and as a result, medical interpretation services are in high demand.

For example, one study found that poor communication between healthcare team members and patients or family members at discharge can result in:

  • confusion around follow-up care and medications, 
  • unnecessary readmissions, and 
  • preventable malpractice litigation. 

Specifically, researchers found that a hospital would, on average, reduce its readmission rate by 5% if it were to prioritize patient communication in addition to complying with evidence-based standards of care.

At DTS Language Services, Inc., we understand the importance of proper communication and comprehension by patients and clinical trial participants. Communication is our business and our medical interpreters are here to help you reduce costs and improve quality of care.

Who can serve as a medical interpreter?

Only properly trained professional linguists should provide medical interpretation services. Some medical facilities use bilingual staff, on-staff interpreters, and volunteers. These individuals do not always have the experience necessary to do the job appropriately, though. 

In addition, many hospitals, clinics, and researchers resort to patients’ family and friends, children under 18 years old, and other patients or visitors to serve as interpreters. The biggest reason for turning to untrained individuals to perform these services is cost savings. However, the demand for quality interpreters at affordable prices has fueled the availability of on-demand telephone Interpretation service.

With 24/7 access being a phone call away, medical and healthcare personnel can easily provide quality medical interpreter services to patients and study participants.

How to work effectively through a medical interpreter.

Once we’ve overcome the cost hurdle, a new question arises: how do we train medical staff to interact with and effectively use interpreters? This is a good question. Let’s look at best practices (the following list was adapted from the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center): 

  • First, always introduce yourself to the interpreter. Professionals should be treated with respect and introducing yourself along with others in the room helps the interpreter understand the task ahead. 
  • Request that the interpreter interpret everything into the first person (to avoid “he said, she said”).
  • Assume, and insist, that everything you say, everything the patient says, and everything that family members say is interpreted.
  • During the medical interpretation session, speak directly to the patient, not to the interpreter.
  • To make sure you are communicating clearly, speak more slowly, rather than more loudly. Also, speak at a consistent pace and in relatively short segments. Pause to give the interpreter time to interpret.
  • Do not hold the interpreter responsible for what the patient says or doesn’t say. Remember, the interpreter is the messenger, not the source of the message. If you feel that you are not getting the type of response you were expecting, restate the question or consult with the interpreter to better understand if there is a cultural barrier that is interfering with communication.
  • Be aware that many concepts you express have no linguistic or conceptual equivalent in other languages. The interpreter may have to paint word pictures of many terms you use. Understand that this may take longer than your original speech.
  • Give the interpreter time to restructure information in his/her mind and present it in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner. Speaking English does not always mean thinking in English.
  • Encourage the interpreter to ask questions and to alert you about potential cultural misunderstandings that may come up. Respect an interpreter’s judgment that a particular question is culturally inappropriate and either rephrase the question or ask the interpreter’s help in eliciting the information in a more appropriate way.
  • Ask the patient what he/she believes the problem is, what causes it, and how it would be treated in their country of origin.
  • Ask the patient to repeat back important information that you want to make sure is understood.
  • Be patient. Providing care across a language barrier takes time. However, the time spent up front will be paid back by good rapport and clear communication that will avoid wasted time and dangerous misunderstandings.

In addition to these best practices, try to avoid the following:

  • Highly idiomatic speech, complicated sentence structure, sentence fragments, changing your idea in the middle of a sentence, and asking multiple questions at one time. 
  • Also, avoid making assumptions or generalizations about your patient or their experiences. Common practices or beliefs in a community may not apply to everyone in that community.
  • Avoid patronizing or infantilizing the patient or study participant. Keep in mind, a lack of English language skills is not a reflection of low cognitive function or a lack of education. Your patient may be a college professor or a medical doctor in her own country.

By viewing your medical interpreter as a key partner in providing professional services, you can make the most of communicating with your non-English proficient stakeholders.

Do you need medical interpreter services?

We are here for you!

DTS provides on-demand telephone Interpretation services. Our services allow clients 24/7 access to interpreters in more than 200 languages, 365 days of the year. We have over 4000 interpreters based all around the world, although a majority are based right here in the U.S. 

All of the medical interpreters we provide are professional linguists—they work as professional interpreters and, quite often, translators (of the written word). They have a minimum of 3 years of consecutive interpreting experience and interpret on behalf of hospitals, banks, healthcare providers, airlines, and many other business sectors.

Additionally, our interpreters must agree to a strict code of conduct and sign a robust confidentiality agreement. As such, you can rest assured knowing your patients and study participants are guaranteed absolute confidentiality when speaking through a DTS interpreter.

Our expert interpreters are ready to help in any medical situation, whether to assist in describing the right treatment or to communicate participant responses during a clinical trial. We use a tested process for selecting medical interpreters and ensuring premier customer service. Contact us today to set up your account and get started with medical interpreter services!