How To Work With Interpreters

Jessica’s most recent post, Interpretation Declined, struck a chord with me.  She brings up a very good topic and it was refreshing for me to see it from a different perspective. I wanted to expand on this topic some more since I have utilized interpreters as both a genetic counselor and as a patient.

Jessica writes about her experience as a genetic counselor who works with interpreters.  I’m writing from the other side of the fence; the patient’s experience using interpreters.  I hope some of you find this helpful or this serves as a refresher if nothing else.

The top 5 things I wish health care providers knew when working with interpreters.

Note:  I’m deaf myself and have worked with numerous interpreters in various settings.

1)    Make the situation less stressful as possible for everyone. It’s always stressful going to the doctor’s office but it is even more stressful not knowing if a qualified interpreter will be available for an appointment or if a medical provider knows how to use an interpreter.

I, personally, worry more about if an interpreter will be present at my doctor appointments than the actual appointment or not.  I greatly appreciate it when the doctor’s office calls me prior to my appointment to let me know if an interpreter has been scheduled.  This reduces my stress level and shows that the doctor’s office cares about accessibility and I’m a lot more likely to focus on my health itself than communication barriers that may arise.

When possible, genetic counselors should try to contact their patient in advance notifying them that an interpreter will be available even if it’s only an hour prior to the appointment.

This makes a big difference because it shows you respect your patients and shows them you want your patients to have equal access to information.

2)    Remember the interpreter is not there just for the patient, he/she is there for you also. For the longest time I felt like I was a burden whenever I needed an interpreter which in turn made me want to avoid going to the doctor.  Health care providers tended to make me feel like it was my fault I needed an interpreter because I couldn’t understand spoken English.

I read something a couple of years ago that made me realize that an interpreter is there not just for me but for the health care provider also.  I do not speak the same language my health care provider speaks and my health care provider does not speak the same language I do.  Hence we both need an interpreter to understand each other.

A suggestion for genetic counselors would be to remember it is not only the patient who needs an interpreter, YOU need an interpreter too.  Do not make the patient feel like he/she is a burden by making them feel like you had to go out of your way to work with an interpreter.

3)    Preparation. As genetic counselors we know the importance of case preparation prior to an appointment.  Don’t forget to prepare interpreters also.

When possible take 5 minutes prior to an appointment to review the case with the interpreter.  Mention the patient’s name because it is possible the interpreter may already know the patient from outside a medicine setting which could lead to awkward situations for the patient and possibly a bias in the translation.

Give a brief review of the case-particularly genetic terminology.   This gives you the chance to bring up any sensitive issues that an interpreter may say he/she cannot interpret without a bias.  A review of uncommonly used terminology helps ensure information gets translated correctly.

4)    Medical interpreters. My best health care experiences have involved medical interpreters.  I know many of you use telephone interpreters, but try and check as if your scheduled interpreter has any medical training.

If you work with a specific interpreting agency on a daily basis contact the company and ask if you can send some information to them that can be reviewed with interpreters.  I have found as a genetic counselor that it makes a huge difference when I provide an interpreter with a list of commonly used genetic terms with brief definitions.

5)    Know your rights and how to work with an interpreter. If you do not feel comfortable using a specific interpreter, request a different one.   You are entitled to working with a qualified interpreter.  Become familiar with the type of interpreter services your hospital works with.  How are those interpreters hired?  Do they have any medicine background?  What kind of certifications do they have?  Have they been trained to be neutral?  What are their qualifications?

Have high standards for interpreters you work with and develop work relationships with them.  Keep the communication line between you and interpreters open.

Don’t forget, you are speaking to your patient and not the interpreter.  Maintain eye contact with your patient and avoid using phrases such as “tell her,” “what does he think,” etc.

Relax and be comfortable. 🙂

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