How to work with an interpreter in a medical setting

If you are in the medical field, sometime during your career you most likely will  work with an interpreter. Some doctors and other medical professionals are not aware of the proper etiquette involved with this process.

Below you will find tips on how to properly work with an interpreter in a medical setting.

Before seeing the patient:

  • Look over their chart to get a good idea of the case.
  • Brief your interpreter on the patient’s background and current condition.
  • If you are unfamiliar with the interpreter, ask if he/she will be interpreting simultaneous or consecutively. (Below find an explanation of the terms.)

Once inside:

  • When you walk in, smile, and say hello to your patient, addressing him/her directly. Use the patient’s name, and introduce yourself: “Hello, Mrs. Garcia, I’m Dr. Smith.”
  • ALWAYS address the patient, and not the interpreter.
  • Strive to maintain eye contact with your patient.  Although sometimes challenging, this will establish that YOU are the doctor, and are interested in the PATIENT, not the interpreter. Your interpreter should also reinforce this by not holding side conversations with the patient, and directing any questions to YOU.
  • Never make side comments or jokes about the patient (yes, I’ve seen this happen). You never know how much the patient can actually understand.

The conversation:

Simultaneous: The interpreter interprets the dialogue immediately after it is spoken. You could compare this form of interpretation to voice-overs or dubbing.  Some medical professionals dislike this form of interpretation because they feel that they can’t hear themselves think.

Consecutive: The interpreter retains what is said in his/her memory and relays it back once the person pauses or stops speaking. When working with consecutive interpretation, you must:

  • Speak at a reasonable pace. Allow time for the interpreter to do his/her job.
  • Do not interrupt the interpreter while he/she is speaking. (This means: no sighing, rolling eyes, tapping pen, looking at watch, or blurting out, “Okay, okay,  okay, so get to the point.” Yes, I have also seen this!)
  • Explain normally to the patient all information, such as tests to be performed, diagnosis, etc.
  • Do not expect interpreter to clarify information or explain what you say. Mean what you say and say what you mean.

And you should never, ever, ever:

  • Ask patients to bring their own interpreter. This is a violation of federal law.
  • Use another patient to interpret.
  • Use unqualified staff to interpret.
    • Use CHILDREN to interpret. (I have seen children as young as 6 interpreting for family members. Try to imagine a kindergartener explaining to an adult the correct way to take heart medication or what idiopathic angioneurotic edema is.)

With these tips, your medical interpreter can be a useful cultural and language resource that will allow you to serve your patients to the best of your abilities.