A significant portion of the U.S. population today has limited English knowledge, which prevents them from communicating effectively with healthcare professionals. And the results may be quite negative on the person’s health. That’s why the federal government has enacted Title IV of the Civil Rights Act that makes providing medical interpretation mandatory for people who have limited or no understanding of English.

There are approximately 44 million immigrants living in the United States and about 22% of the population in the USA does not speak English at home according to a report published by the Migration Policy Institute. This percentage is higher in some states, including Nevada and Florida. The report also says that Spanish was the top non-English language spoken at home, followed by Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Arabic.

This data can be very useful to medical and healthcare institutions who are looking for the right medical interpreters. In order to provide the necessary care for their patients, both small and large practices need to have access to quality medical interpretation services

It is important to know how to work with a medical interpreter and there are five simple steps that can ensure the accuracy of the medical interpretation, which is of paramount importance in healthcare.  

Do not use family members for medical interpretation 

Medical interpretation aims to improve medical services, so it needs to be provided by professional interpreters with expertise and experience in the field. While in the past, practitioners used to rely on family members, relatives, friends or other staff members to interpret for a non-English speaking patient, this practice is not ideal for several reasons. 

The mere fact that a person is bilingual does not make them a good interpreter. Given the complex nature and difficulty of medical jargon, it is not possible to rely on someone without the proper education and training to provide an accurate interpretation. Quite often non-professionals that are used to interpret for a patient may misunderstand the diagnosis or the prescribed treatment, and thus potentially threaten the health of the patient.

Another argument against using family members as medical interpreters is they are emotionally affected by the situation, which may lead to a misunderstanding of the information they are given, even if their language skills are at a proficient level. 

Work with qualified medical interpreters 

One of the best ways to ensure medical interpretation accuracy is to work with qualified medical interpreters. These are people who have proficient knowledge of the foreign language required, as well as the necessary training to work in a medical setting.

Qualified medical interpreters are often certified by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) or the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). They also stick to a national code of ethics for interpreters in healthcare and to national standards of practice for interpreters in health care

In many cases, medical interpreters also have gained significant experience prior to starting work at a healthcare institution.

All of these factors are indicators of the professionalism of the person you are working with and are a guarantee of accurate, timely, and fluent interpretation in any case.  

Brief the medical interpreter in advance 

If possible, it is essential to meet with the medical interpreter in advance and brief them about the given patient. This is a good idea, especially when it concerns more complex or sensitive cases. Thus, you can make sure that the interpreter is completely familiar with the case. You can discuss different issues that are related not only to the medical aspect of the meeting but also to the cultural side. The interpreter can give you useful information about certain traditions or specifications of the culture of the patient that can be useful for the overall diagnosis and treatment.  

In many cases, however, such a preliminary meeting is not possible. This does not mean that the quality of the medical interpretation will be any lower, given that it is provided by professional interpreters.  

Speak clearly, use short sentences and address the patient directly 

Another important step that will guarantee medical interpretation accuracy and will make the conversation more natural is the way you speak. As a practitioner, you are probably used to speaking calm and in short sentences trying to avoid too complicated terminology so that the patient can understand you. 

Basically, you need to do the same regardless of the fact that you speak to the patient via an interpreter. Speak clearly and in short sentences and allow time for interpretation. It is necessary to address directly the patient. Do not use phrases such as “ask them if” or “tell them to”. You need to maintain the same way you communicate with the patient regardless of the presence or absence of a medical interpreter.  

Choose the best type of medical interpretation for your institution  

There are several types of medical interpretation that you can use depending on your needs. It is necessary to determine the right one for your practice or for a given case. The three main options are: 

  • On-site medical interpretation – the medical interpreter comes to the healthcare institution in person and works with the practitioners and patients. It is possible to have an in-house medical interpreter or summon one from an agency whenever needed.  
  • Over-the-phone medical interpretation – the medical interpreter is available on the phone once you need them. Over-the-phone interpretation is suitable for emergency cases when an on-site interpreter is not available. The service is also good for smaller practices or such healthcare institutions that do not deal with non-English patients very often. 
  • Video-remote medical interpretation – the medical interpreter is available via a conference call. Video-remote interpretation is another alternative to the on-site interpretation services. It gives the parties the benefit to also see each other while having a conversation, which is quite useful especially in a medical setting.  

You can use all of the types of medical interpretation depending on the case. It is a good idea to work with the same interpreters when possible as that will help patients feel more relaxed. Make sure to ask your LSP if that is possible. Besides, an interpreter who is already familiar with a certain case will contribute to the overall quality of the dialogue between practitioners and patients.  

It is necessary to keep in mind that the interpreter is there to merely convey the message from one language into another. A professional won’t change the meaning, add or omit information during the medical interpretation.  

If you are interested in medical interpretation or translation services, ICD Translation is here to help you with any language that you need.  

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