Category Archives: Kelly Rogel

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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Label Jars….Not People

jarsAs genetic counselors we hope to make a difference in someone’s life.  Why not expand on that?  While our primary focus should be on our patients, we should also strive to utilize our skills outside of the workplace.  Not only will this have an impact on the world, it will also indirectly have an impact on our patients.  It’s a circle.

It does not have to be something that requires a lot of time, thinking power, or effort.  It can be something very simple.  There are many different ways that this can be done; this is just one example.


You have been labeled at some point no matter who you are or where you are at in your life right now.  You have felt how degrading those labels can be.  You know first handed how it can negatively affect your perspective and other people’s perspective of yourself.  Some labels originate within the medical community.

We may use labels to communicate effectively and quickly with busy MDs.  We may have to use them in order to protect a person’s confidentiality.  However, labels should only be used when absolutely necessary.  They should not be used to form expectations of someone.  Genetic counselors oftentimes strive to use sensitive language with patients.

For instance, we may say “change” instead of “mutation.”

We try to choose neutral words when possible.  We have seen how word choices affect our rapport with patients.  I’m sure you’ve heard of the idea of making it a point that people are people first and a genetic condition is just part of who they are.  An example would be to say “people with Down syndrome” instead of “Down syndrome people.”  We should take the same sensitive approach in daily conversations outside the workplace.

This helps to prevent pigeonholing people and shows respect.

We can take what we learn from the workplace and apply it to the outside world to make a difference.  Exploring various ways to apply our genetic counseling skills outside of the workplace will only make us better genetic counselors within the workplace.  Once again, it’s a circle.

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When The Line Between Being A Friend and A Genetic Counselor Becomes Fuzzy

Set scene.

It’s 9 pm on a Friday night and I walk into a friend’s apartment all ready to catch up on meaningless gossip with friends.

“Kelly!  I have a genetics question for you.”

“What if I have a family history of *insert condition* what are the chances of me having that condition?”

“Is it okay to take this medicine during the first trimester of my pregnancy?”

End scene.

I imagine many of you have found yourselves in similar situations.  I constantly get questions from friends and family members regarding their chances for developing a genetic condition.  I also get many questions from friends who are pregnant.

My initial reaction is always one where I want to just sit them down and counsel them.  I want to give them all the information they’re looking for.  I want to help them.  I love when people I’m close with show an interest in my passion and I want to seize that opportunity.  It also means something to me that they trust me with some of their most personal question regarding their health.

I have a personal rule that I stop and think before I answer these types of questions.  I remind myself to take off my genetic counselor hat and to be a friend/family member first.  I do sometimes give very general and basic textbook scientific information.  I do not counsel a friend’s risk of developing a condition nor do I give them any medical advice.  I have never and will not counsel friends/family members outside of a clinic setting.  This not only protects me, it also protects them.  I cannot provide quality services outside of a clinic setting if I don’t have access to accurate medical information, can’t order tests, and I can’t protect their privacy.

What do you feel your responsibilities are as a genetic counselor outside of “work?”  Do you always wear your genetic counselor hat?  What are our responsibilities when we know we could provide a lot of helpful information?  Do we hold all that information from them and encourage our loved ones to make an appointment with a genetic counselor/geneticist/doctor?  What if they never make that appointment?

What are some experiences you have had?  Where and how do you draw the line between being a counselor and a friend/family member?

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