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What is Medical Interpreting?

Medical interpreters facilitate communication between patients and health care providers who speak different languages. When a patient and a provider have limited ability to communicate in the same language, it can be nearly impossible to provide quality, patient-centered care. Even if the patient or provider speak a little of the others’ language, they often lack knowledge of medical terminology or familiarity with cultural concepts that affect the delivery of effective health care.

 

Effective interpreting requires a set of considerations that are more complex than simply possessing the ability to speak two languages. Trained medical interpreters have an understanding of important medical terminology, the specialized skills to faithfully render messages from one language to another, and an understanding of how to mediate cultural misunderstandings. While providers may be tempted to rely on untrained bilingual staff, or a patient’s family and friends, to interpret for a patient, working with a medical interpreter greatly increases the chances of successful health outcomes.

 

The Cross Cultural Health Care Program’s Bridging The Gap interpreter training was developed in the 1990s. Since then, the training has prepared thousands of bilingual individuals to work successfully as medical interpreters.

 

Why Medical Interpreting?

A provider gives a patient a prescription for suppositories. The untrained interpreter is too embarrassed to admit that he does not know the word for “suppository” in the patient’s language, so he uses the word for “pill” instead. The patient takes the medication orally and ends up in the emergency room.

 

After her appointment, a patient’s husband asks the untrained interpreter what the doctor said to his wife. Trying to be helpful, the interpreter discloses the happy news that the patient is pregnant. This is not happy news to the husband, as his wife has just arrived from their home country, after being apart from him for a year. The couple leaves the clinic with the husband angrily muttering thinly veiled threats of violence.

 

The doctor asks the patient a question. The untrained interpreter and the patient get into a long discussion, while the doctor sits and waits, completely left out. Finally the interpreter turns to the doctor and says “She said no.” When the doctor asks exactly what the patient said, the interpreter smiles and says, “Oh, it wasn’t important. She just means no.”

 

While it is common practice in medical centers to allow anyone who professes to speak another language to serve as an interpreter, the risks in doing so are very high. Untrained bilinguals are unaware of the role of the interpreter, the ethics of interpreting, the techniques involved in facilitating a patient-provider communication, and the vocabulary involved in a medical interview. Inevitably, they make mistakes, and mistakes in a health care setting can be serious, even fatal.

 

Learn more about Bridging the Gap, CCHCP’s solution to the training and professional development needs of medical interpreters around the United States!