The Many Hats of a Medical Interpreter

Another role of a medical interpreter is to be an information gatekeeper in the sense that it’s expected that only vital and important information is being relayed to the doctor and cut off interactions that deemed to be unimportant to the actual medical case. In some cases, patients can be chatty and would tell stories or information that are not related to his/her medical issue. In this case, doctors will sometimes tell the medical interpreter to only tell the doctor what is necessary. The ability of the interpreter to effectively limit the narrative of a patient can save time and appreciated by the doctors.

An interpreter is also considered as emotional support to the patient as we naturally feel a connection to someone who speaks our language. In this case, some non-conduit bond is permittable if it will help the patient open-up more that will result in doctor having all the information he/she might need to make a medical assessment.

Medical providers require that their medical interpreters are certified before hiring them. One doesn’t need to have a degree in the medical field or languages to get certified. The main thing is that the candidate can speak the source and target languages fluently. The candidate should also be able to effectively translate impartially and accurately. Working in the medical field, it is expected that the candidate is knowledgeable of medical terminologies. It is also important that the candidate adheres to the highest level of ethical standards for health care interpreters.

* The main core of the health care industry is to ensure that the patient’s wellbeing is taken care for. It means that a medical interpreter should support the health and wellbeing of the patient and cause no harm.

* The interpreter should be able to convey the message as accurately as possible and remain faithful to the original message adhering to the essential function of their role. The interpreter should be conscious of not sharing his/her own biases or beliefs nor provide counseling or advice as this is the responsibility of health providers. In cases where the remarks are considered vulgar or offensive, the interpreter is still expected to relay the information as this can still have a valuable source of data. However, on some occasions, the interpreter can tell the speaker that his/her message can be perceived rude or inappropriate by the other party and the speaker can modify his/her language as the interpreter is obligated to communicate the message as is.

* Respecting the cultural differences and understand its importance in interpreting the message without causing miscommunication and misunderstanding between the patient and the doctor.

* The interpreter should honor the privacy of the patient and never disclose all private information beyond the “treating team”. Although in some cultures, it is always given that health information of an individual can be shared with family members, a medical interpreter should adhere to the general rule that it is the prerogative of the patient to whom he/she would want to share her medical information, or information about the clients’ finances, including investments or credit scores.

How to become one? The candidate should attend an accredited medical interpreter training course which usually requires 40 hours of training. Other employers require a minimum of 160-hour course to be considered. A candidate might be bilingual but if he/she can’t pass the Language Testing International which tests a candidate’s written, verbal, comprehension, and listening skills on the source and target languages, then further improvement on the source and target languages is required. The person should also be over 18 years old to ensure that the candidate has a level of maturity that is required to perform the role. The candidate should also complete at least a high school diploma.

With immigration and globalization are increasing, translators and interpreters are in high demand. In the United States, demand for interpreters and translators is expected to increase by 17% by 2026.

The Skills Taught During Medical Interpreter Training

As an alternative to face-to-face interpretation, medical facilities rely on other alternatives such as telephone interpretation wherein medical interpreters provide the service over the phone. Another option is video interpretation wherein the interpreter will be on a video call and have the opportunity to have visual contact with the specialist and patient. Video interpretation is more preferred than Audio interpretation but the former requires a strong internet connection to make it work. Still, the preferred choice of many patients is in-person interpretation as it is more personal.

There are also two modes of interpretation that can be provided by medical interpreters. First is Simultaneous interpretation meaning that the interpreter talks while simultaneously listening without pause or breaks. This is usually applied to large presentations and conferences. The other mode is called Consecutive interpretation wherein the interpreter listens to a chunk of information then translates it. The speaker and interpreter take the turn to speak. To maintain accuracy, the speaker should not speak more than 15 minutes to ensure that the interpreter can grasp all the details required. The interpreter can also take down notes to remind him/her of important information that should be relayed.

One of the dangers and challenges in a utilitarian approach to the medical interpreting role has been discussed in detail in a study. A traditional language interpreter is expected to relay a neutral and passive approach in passing the information without adding his/her personal biases. As a medical interpreter, utilizing a utilitarian approach can decrease emotional support and compromise the quality of care that can otherwise be given to the patient.

One of the issues noted in the study is the unidirectional communication between doctor to interpreter and patient to the interpreter. A doctor is expecting that the interpreter will relay the message literally which can be problematic as there are some culturally-coded meanings in words. Some doctors would prefer that the interpreter relay the message as it was spoken then the doctor can decide if it requires further prodding. The decision to clarify, for some doctors, should come from him/her and not for the interpreter to decide.

Interpreters are often viewed as a tool by the doctors in the sense that they are expected to hold their own views or opinions, nor provide any information as doing so may deem inefficient and seen as overlooking the hierarchy between a doctor/patient/interpreter. Doctors expect that the medical interpreter to be an ancillary member of the doctor’s team and interpreters know that the doctor is still in charge.

What are Medical Interpreters?

A medical interpreter is simply defined as someone who translates diagnosis, prescriptions, and other medical matters to a patient who doesn’t speak the doctor’s language. 

A medical interpreter’s role is crucial and delicate. They are expected to relay a message to the patient regarding the observations of a specialist in a factual and accurate manner but also considering the cultural language differences that may arise between the doctor and patient. It is expected that all the findings, observations, and recommendations of the specialist will be translated into a language that a patient will understand. Patients who can’t speak nor understand the doctor’s language are often scared and hesitant to open up due to limited language capability or lack of understanding that can result in misdiagnosis, confusion, anger, or inability to administer the correct treatment. 

It is also important that medical interpreters act with the highest ethical behavior to transmit a message from a doctor to the patient and vice versa without losing context. 

There is a shortage of medical interpreters in the healthcare industry. Instead of hiring medical interpreters, hospitals often hire bilingual doctors, nurses, or medical staff to assist in translating. In some cases, it becomes the responsibility of a patient’s family members to interpret on behalf of the specialist. Hospitals can’t always provide the interpretation service to the patients due to a shortage of medical interpreters who can do the job. In the United States for example, as of 2013, there are more than 25 million who were considered as Limited English Proficient (LEP). However, in California, they were only 738 certified medical practitioners to serve 1.7 million people who cannot speak the English language. This huge difference in numbers can be overwhelming to the medical industry. 

One of the major issues is having too many languages that need to be covered and translated to. Hiring medical interpreters to assist the medical facility even just for the common language of the hospital population can turn out to be expensive. From Russian to Arabic, to French and Korean, there are many languages that need to be covered, and hiring medical interpreters for each one will definitely cost money.

It is also not enough that a person is bilingual to be a medical interpreter. The candidate needs to undergo specialized training in medical terminologies and is required to have the highest ethical standard since he/she will have access to personal and confidential patient information. The person should have a strong command of the source and the target language to ensure that he/she can relay the message accurately since the quality of care that a patient will receive depends on the accuracy of translation that the medical interpreter can provide. 

It is also expected that medical interpreters will be compassionate, can provide excellent support to the doctor and patient, and capable of working under stress.