Get a Quote Today. Call 800-595-4648
medical interpreter

Who are medical interpreters and how do they help?

In the world of interpretation, one specific area of expertise has a role to play with potentially dire consequences if done incorrectly: that of medical interpreters. In this blog post, we’re going to examine their role and importance to both doctors and patients.

What is a medical interpreter?

To put it simply, a medical interpreter is a professional interpreter who assists in the communication of medical information between doctors and patients – as well their carers – and vice versa. Because of their specialist nature, it isn’t common for hospitals to have an interpreter in their staff, relying on freelance interpreters or the work of agencies to provide the service.

What are the key requirements of a medical interpreter?

While many hospitals find themselves in the position of relying on bilingual staff members to assist in interpretation, fluency in two languages isn’t enough for a medical interpreter. This is largely because while most people who speak two languages can hold conversations easily, and are likely to know some medical terminology in their native language, the lexicon of medical terms required in two languages is often too complicated while also working in a medical role.

As such, medical interpreter’s need to know key medical terms in both the target and source languages, and be able to communicate them effectively to each person or group of people involved in the conversation.

On top of language fluency, a medical interpreter should also be able to demonstrate compassion and discretion. In many cases, they are required to present negative diagnoses to patients in words they understand.

How do they work?

A medical interpreter tends to work in one of three ways:

  1. Face-to-face with doctor and patient
  2. Over the phone
  3. Through a video conversation

The preference is towards face-to-face conversations. Technology can inhibit the performance of the medical interpreter, introducing a number of complications into the process. Included in the list of potential issues with phone or video communication are:

  • Poor audio – from microphones, phone lines or internet connections – resulting in the interpreter’s inability to hear correctly, or to be heard
  • Inability to see facial expressions, particularly over the phone
  • Inability to see hand gestures, particularly over the phone
  • Delays in transmissions, resulting in people speaking over one another

Whenever possible, a medical interpreter should be present in the room with the doctor and patient, or whoever represents the best medical wishes of the patient.

Issues facing medical interpretation

When a medical interpreter is not present, a number of issues may arise as a result of a member of the hospital staff – or worse, a layperson acting on behalf of the patient – taking over the task of communicating in a second language. These issues are typically a consequence of someone not knowing the exact terminology required. As a result, the following errors are usually made:

  • Omission; redacting important information either from misunderstanding the emphasis placed upon them, or not knowing how to interpret into another language
  • Substitution; presenting the closest word or phrase instead of the correct one, because it is not known
  • Addition; inserting one’s own information or opinions into the interpretation, without specifying which parts of a sentence came from the doctor or patient and which belong to the interpreter

Each of these errors, and those similar to them, can result in a patient’s description of their symptoms being presented incorrectly to the medical professionals in charge of their care, or the doctor prescribing a treatment that may be excessive, harmful or inadequate.

Why should you use a medical interpreter?

As a result of their training and study, a medical interpreter is the best person to have on-site when sensitive medical information needs to be communicated. Aside from keeping one’s privacy, particularly from well-meaning family and friends who may think they can assist in the interpretation process, a medical interpreter can help ensure a patient is treated correctly.

Knowledge of the correct medical terminology in both languages being spoken means a medical interpreter never needs to omit, substitute or add words or phrases when communicating between doctor and patient. This ensures that, insofar as a patient is accurately and completely describing their symptoms, and the doctor is capable of diagnosing an illness, the patient can receive the correct care for their condition.

How can we help?

As well as providing interpretation services in languages from all over the world, we specialize in translation and interpretation. Get in touch to see how our interpretation services can be of benefit to you, and check out the list of languages we cater towards so you’re never lost for an agency to assist.


About The Author