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3 Things You Should Never Ask of a Health Care Interpreter

Medical interpreting, whether in a hospital, clinic, at the scene of an accident or in a family physician's office, is a professional service provided by professional individuals and language agencies. However, it can often be challenging for the interpreter, both mentally and emotionally, depending on the patient's condition, the situation in which the interpreter is needed and other factors that arise as part of the job. Health care professionals are faced with challenges in their own daily work as well. Nevertheless, it's important to remember that one's own professional challenges in a given situation may not be the same as those of another and vice versa. Doctors, nurses and administrators in medical settings each have their own capacity in performing their work, as do health care interpreters. Here are three things to avoid requesting of a health care interpreter.

"Could you please read/fill this out for the patient?" This question might seem innocent and one that is meant to help a process move along a little faster or more smoothly, but it's a common question asked of health care interpreters in health care facilities daily. Some patients cannot read well, write well or may even be illiterate, however it is important to remember that the interpreter is not responsible for filling out a patient's medical information and should never be asked to do so.

Consider this scenario. A patient arrives for an appointment and speaks little to no English. The interpreter introduces him/herself to the patient and the health care staff upon checking in. While the administrator behind the desk prepares the paperwork the patient needs to fill out, s/he asks the interpreter to explain the forms to the patient and help him/her fill them out. Ethically, the interpreter should know better and kindly inform the administrator of his/her role as an interpreter. The administration should provide someone from its staff to go over the forms with the patient, while the interpreter interprets the content. This way, if the patient has any questions or concerns, the staff can answer these, leaving the interpreter to do his/her job and avoid giving any medical advice, which is clearly not his/her role. This also deflects liability from the interpreter for doling out incorrect information or making a mistake on the patient's documentation.

"Can you hold this child's legs while we give her the booster?" This question might even sound humorous to someone reading, but it has happened and continues to happen often. Ask any parent or nurse. Giving a child a vaccination can be a stressful situation. A child is upset, sometimes crying, squirming, etc. But again, the interpreter's role is to interpret, not to assist in performing any medical act or procedure.

Image Source: "Dedicated to All Better: A Blog by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta"

Many times, health care staff see the interpreter as an extension of their own staff. This is wonderful in terms of respect and professionalism, but it's important to know where to draw the line when it comes to overstepping an interpreter's role. This is all in addition to any liability issues that could result from an interpreter helping to restrain a patient. Ask another staff member to assist and leave the interpreter to interpret.

"Tell us your opinion of this patient's mental state." Many of you who are reading may already be shaking your head. How can an interpreter assess a patient's mental state? Yet, this question is often asked of interpreters in situations in which the patient's mental or emotional health is being assessed.

Consider this. Would it make sense to ask an English-speaking individual present for another English-speaking patient's visit what s/he thinks of the patient's mental state? What authority does this person have to assess another's mental condition? The same goes for an interpreter and the ethics we practice in our industry. Interpreters are not health care professionals, nor are they qualified to assess a patient's condition. Yes, they are professionals who are able to communicate in both languages with a high level of medical knowledge and terminology, but this does not make them colleagues in the same sense.

Interpreters' professional code of ethics also prohibits them from stepping out of the roles of the profession. The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC)'s Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Health Care clearly states, "The interpreter maintains the boundaries of the professional role, refraining from personal involvement." This allows the interpreter to remain unbiased as much as possible and avoid any involvement that could result in larger problems down the road.

Many health care professionals are unaware of interpreter ethics and standards, which is why it is crucial to take the time to learn about these aspects of the interpreter's role and what to expect of a professional service. For more information on National Standards of Practice or the Code of Ethics for Interpreters in Health Care, please visit the NCIHC webpage.

Interpreting in health care: Why health care providers should skip the drive-thru method

Technology in the language services industry is in rapid growth mode. However, there seems to be a misunderstanding among the masses of ways technology will solve problems regarding language barriers in our society today. Perhaps it says something about the way we think and how we carry ourselves day to day. We've heard it referred to as a "drive-thru" society at times, i.e. we don't have time to stop the car, go inside and order our food. Rather, we'd prefer to sit in the comfort of our own vehicles and order at the window, assuming that service will be quicker and we can get on with our days a bit more easily. For anyone who has ever gone through a drive-thru more than once, you know that this may not be the case. You may end up sitting in line longer than it would have taken you to simply park the car, go inside and order your food to go. So how do our fast food society habits compare to language access and technology?

Recently, medical students at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) created an application (app) for medical translation. An article published by UCSF in 2011 stated that a couple of medical students were frustrated at how long it took them to communicate with Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals, especially at night and on the weekends. It also mentioned that the San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH), where they worked, "...offers assistance in more than 65 languages through a combination of staff medical interpreters, a telephone language line and a video medical interpretation system proving real-time access to providers and patients within four minutes." Four minutes! In most fields, access to an interpreter in that amount of time is incredibly fast. So, why the need for a translation app?

One of the students, Alex Blau said, “Ninety percent of diagnoses come from the patient’s self-reported medical history, so the ability to communicate is critical,” referring to nights and weekends. “Time is not an asset doctors or patients have. You need that information when you need it.” We would say it's safe to argue that most patients, whether they speak English natively or not, would rather their doctors slow down and take the time to talk with them (not to mention, in their own language).

In order to solve their dilemma, the students decided to create an app that would "translate" medical history questions into other languages. The article did not mention whether or not there was a feature that would "translate" the patients' responses. How would these students capture responses from patients or further explain if a patient does not understand the question, is illiterate or hard of hearing? Many professional interpreters know that when a patient is asked his or her name, at times, the patient may not even be able to spell it. An app certainly won't solve this issue.

The best choice is to have a professional, trained interpreter present in person, on the phone or available via video access. If a patient needs assistance via a professional interpreter, waiting the four minutes (and many times, less!) will give everyone peace of mind to know that the patients' concerns and medical information is interpreted accurately and efficiently. One more issue comes to mind when considering the features of the app in general. Although the creators have made it available in multiple languages with multiple questions about one's medical history, how does it really save time? It seems to only save a little time on the wait time (which, we have already established is really not that long), as patients have to take the time to read or listen to the questions and then respond. We would argue that medical interpreters are much more efficient in rendering the message accurately and interpreting the answers patients give, which tend to be explanations, rather than one- to two-word responses. Telephonic and remote video interpreters, as well as on-site interpreters, also work in the evenings and on weekends. So, availability is typically not an issue if the medical provider has a quality service provider.

Going to the doctor's office can be stressful enough, with filling out insurance forms, waiting for the doctor and feeling sick all at once. After waiting to see a doctor (which will certainly take more than four minutes), we'd like to think we can take the time we need to fully explain what we've been feeling or experiencing, without having to read or listen to an app, which may or may not contain the questions necessary to discuss our ailment. If we needed an interpreter, we would hope the doctor would take the four minutes or less to access one and read our charts while we wait. This seems like a much better use of technology and time.

Medical Translation and Interpreting: Saving Money, Saving Lives

Some professions can be very competitive and those who don't perform the same type of job duties may not understand why. Sometimes I think, "Why are these people being so competitive and cut-throat with their colleagues? It's not like they're saving lives!" However, in the field of medical translation and interpreting, we can say that yes, linguists often might be saving lives. Here are two examples of how medical translators and interpreters can save clients money while their work can save lives: The first example is found in an article posted in January 2009 in American Medical News from the American Medical Association. This case involved a New Jersey rheumatologist who refused to provide a sign language interpreter for a patient being treated for lupus. This patient consistently requested an interpreter, but claims that her requests were always denied. The physician's argument was that Medicare did not reimburse the entire cost of an interpreter for each visit. Instead, he passed written notes back and forth to the patient and her family.

Apparently, this was not enough for the patient to feel as though she understood what was happening at the medical visits and she transferred to another doctor. The patient sued the original physician, claiming violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, along with New Jersey's anti-discrimination law. The jury found the rheumatologist had indeed discriminated against the patient when failing to provide a sign language interpreter.

If a medical interpreter had been present at the child's visits with the rheumatologist, she might have felt differently about the care she received and would not have sued the physician, which will likely cost him more than an interpreter would have.

Then there is the story of Lia Lee, a child raised in California of Hmong refugees and the focus of Anne Fadiman's book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. Lia was misdiagnosed twice as having had pneumonia, when in reality, she was epileptic from the time she was an infant. Lia's parents did not speak English well enough to communicate with the doctors who treated her, and they often misunderstood how to care for her at home. They did not know how to describe the child's seizures effectively to her physicians, as in their own culture, these episodes seemed to convey that her body was being overtaken by a spirit.

Misunderstandings continued between Lia's parents and her physicians, as both sides were unable to communicate effectively and understand each other's cultures. A New York Times article reported, "The seizures worsened; by the time Lia was 4 ½, she had made more than 100 outpatient visits to medical facilities and been admitted to the hospital 17 times. When she was not quite 3, in frustration at what he viewed as her parents’ refusal to administer her medication, Dr. Ernst (Lia's physician) had Lia legally removed from the family home." Lia was sent to live in foster care for one year, yet another blow to her parents. Her health worsened and the relationships between her parents and her physicians were strained, as neither side seemed to adequately comprehend the culture and language of the other. Lia died on August 31, 2012.

A medical interpreter at Lia's visits and proper translation of her prescriptions and care instructions could have allowed Lia to receive consistent and proper care for her condition, likely avoiding her placement in foster care. Needless to say, such services would have greatly improved her quality of life.

These are only two of the stories about how medical translation and interpretation can save lives and reduce costs by avoiding unnecessary tests, misdiagnoses, treatment errors and miscommunication. To ensure compliance with federal regulations as a health care provider, be sure to request professional interpreting and translation for patients and their families. It truly can save you money and continue to save lives.