Why You Should Use an Interpreter in a Medical Setting

The cultural diversity in the United States makes our country unique. Today, most Americans can trace their roots to foreign ancestors, the very same type of immigrant that institutions want to provide service for. One in seven Americans speaks a language other than English at home. For example, in a medical setting people with limited English language skills can encounter serious problems when they interact directly with health care providers. Some members of these families have some command of the English language, however, they may not be able to communicate accurate in English for medical purposes.

Some of the factors that influence the communication for a person of limited English are the fear and anxiety that the person could have anticipating or dealing with an illness. For example, a diagnosis of a sexually transmitted disease may be one medical situation where the patient does not feel comfortable having a friend, family member or random bilingual employee as the interpreter. They may feel their privacy and confidentiality could be violated if their personal information was to be divulged. This may be one reason why a patient would prefer to have a trained interpreter to communicate their concerns and problems to the doctor or medical staff. Use of a trained interpreter would also considerably reduce the risk of liability caused by inappropriate treatment due to misunderstanding because the clinic used a staff member with poor interpreting training or by using a family member as a interpreter. The patient may also feel that the clinic delayed clinical intervention or s/he could feel left out or discriminated against if there is not completely accurately communication.

Should you use an Interpreter and if so, why?

Usually medical staff are monolingual and due to the inability to communicate with patients in their own language, may reach for the most readily available bilingual or almost bilingual resource. The person chosen to be used as an interpreter could be an employee, another patient with knowledge of both languages needed or even the child of the patient will be called on as an interpreter.

This action could cause different problems. For instance, the individuals used as interpreters (employees, children, and family members) do not always have the knowledge of terminology used in a medical settings. These individuals likely are also unfamiliar with the code of ethical standards that emphasizes the confidentiality and privacy of the information being shared. In addition, because of the emotional involvement of a family member as the interpreter, this person will most likely lack objectivity and will be unable to interpret impartially without adding his/her opinions.

In the case where children are used as interpreters for their parents, this action puts the child in a temporarily superior position making the child in the family hierarchy more powerful than their parents. Parents will sometimes not discuss intimate issues or problems at home, like abuse, infidelity, drugs, problems with alcohol, problems related with stress, and other sensitive topics. Under these circumstances the child will have pressure to be accurate and clear while he/she is interpreting which could add frustration and embarrassment if expectations are not met. The child may also find out problems in his/her family that the parents would have preferred not sharing. These may all be emotions and consequences that the health care provider would not anticipate and does not have the power to control. If a trained medical interpreter was used, the provider would not have to anticipate these possible negative consequences.

Different studies in the field have shown that when interpreters are used, fewer tests are ordered by the Doctor as a result of having a better communication and better understanding between the Doctor and patient. These studies also show how the provider can spend less time with the patient as a consequence of better understanding and therefore the visit becomes more efficient, saving the institution time, money and potential liabilities.

Interpretation requires a highly linguistic and cultural knowledgeable skill, the interpreter needs to know how to get everything that is exchanged between the parties involved. The interpreter needs to speak both languages and feel comfortable with changing back and forth between them. The interpreter needs to have a good memory, speed and fluency, as well as to be able to accurately express ideas and thoughts in one language even though that same set of words my not exist in the target language.


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