The Importance of Medical Interpreters in the Translation Services Industry

medical interpretation
February 28, 2022

Medical interpretation is one of the most important yet challenging types of translation. Why? Because a mix-up or misunderstanding of a few words could, quite literally, be a matter of life and death. When dealing with patients who speak different languages, it’s crucial to have highly skilled and trained medical interpreters to assist them in making informed healthcare choices. They are an important complement to the patients’ care teams, ensuring that they are on the same page as the doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who patients entrust with their care.

What is Medical Interpreting?

medical interpreterA medical interpreter helps others communicate with their healthcare provider if the provider does not speak their native language. Medical Interpretation takes place interview-style, with the interpreter communicating back and forth on behalf of the patient and medical team.

Interpreting can take place in a wide variety of settings, including:

  • Emergency rooms and hospitals
  • Doctors’ offices
  • Clinics
  • Dental offices
  • Mental health facilities
  • Nursing homes
  • Rehab facilities
  • At a patient’s home

Why Medical Interpreting Is So Important 

No matter where you live, it is likely you will encounter people from all different cultures and backgrounds who speak different languages. We must be mindful and provide language assistance to those patients with limited english language skills.

When health conditions are involved, language assistance becomes an even more necessary and sensitive situation. The patient relies solely on the medical interpreter to provide details of their diagnosis so they can evaluate and review treatment plans. This requires the interpreter to have a keen understanding of various medical terms and conditions. They have to accurately relay the right information and express any concerns and questions on the patients’ behalf.

Medical Translation vs. Medical Interpretation

Although both terms sound almost the same, there are distinct differences between medical translation and medical interpretation.

Medical Translation

Medical translators work with written words to convert them into a language that is understandable by the party who is reading them. Whether translating a prescription, a doctor’s report, or a medical bill, translators have the important job of converting the text into readable language.

Medical Interpretation

On the other hand, medical interpretation takes place verbally, when an interpreter speaks or gives instructions to a patient or doctor, and vice versa.  As the patient speaks, the interpreter translates for the medical staff. This way, the doctor can understand the patient’s symptoms, medical history and concerns clearly.

Top Benefits of Adding a Medical Interpreter to Your Healthcare Team

medical interpretersAccording to federal law, organizations that receive federal funding should offer equal care for every patient. That’s why a medical interpreter is more needed than ever for non-native English speakers.

Here are some of the top reasons why you should work with a qualified medical interpreter:

  1. Ease of Communication: A medical interpreter can help a patient feel more at ease throughout the process. Even as a native English speaker, going to the doctor or hospital can be a nerve-wracking experience. When you also don’t fully understand what is going on, that can turn into a  recipe for disaster.

Healthcare interpreters can help ease some of those fears by facilitating a smooth communication process. From addressing the patient’s treatment plans, dietary needs, lifestyle habits and concerns, an interpreter can increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. Plus, there is less of a chance for any misunderstandings or miscommunication.

  1. Conveying Messages Impartially: As we know, it is not up to professional interpreters to share their personal medical opinion or advice. Strong emotions can come up when a patient has to make complex medical decisions. They could be feeling lost, alone and confused, and look to the interpreter “have their back.” However, it’s crucial that the translation is clear, unbiased and strictly reliant on the facts so that the condition or circumstance can be treated properly.

Working with an interpreter is more productive than having bilingual family members as the patient’s sole advocate. While they may understand the language being translated, they might also, (knowingly or unknowingly) insert their personal opinions and beliefs into the translation. Just a slight change in tone, inflection and delivery has the potential to alter the communication negatively.

  1. Risk Elimination: A qualified medical interpreter helps prevent the risk of insufficient information, faulty diagnoses and medical malpractice. This significantly eliminates any misguidance, incorrect courses of treatment, and extra costs to both the patient and healthcare provider.
  2. Addressing Patient Satisfaction: Proper translation helps the patient establish a rapport and build trust with their providers.There is nothing worse than struggling with a condition, illness or debilitating pain and having a doctor dismiss what you are feeling. A trained interpreter can serve as that lifeline to be seen, heard and fully understood.

When the patient receives the correct medical care and starts getting better, it can leave a positive lasting impression on the patient for life. At the same time, the hospital/office/patient facility’s reputation increases.

  1. Compliance With Regulations: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds or other Federal financial assistance. Using a trained interpreter satisfies these legal requirements, ensuring that there is an inclusive and safe environment for all. Plus, doctors who are compliant with the government regulations can get maximum reimbursement and reduced malpractice risk.

Potential Challenges for a Medical Interpreter

No one said medical interpreting was easy, but with proper education and training, the challenges can be overcome.

Here are some things to look out for:  

  1. Medical Language: Medical terminology is very difficult to understand and explain. This should come as no surprise since healthcare professions often require many years of schooling and training. If you don’t use the proper terms, you increase the chances of putting lives at risk. And with so much to learn and absorb, it’s easy to make a mistake.

For example: 

  • Oral and aural sound similar, but one is about talking and speaking, and the other is about hearing.
  • Facial and fascia have a few letters difference, but the former pertains to a face, and the latter is about connective tissue!
  • palpitation is the feeling of an irregular or rapid heartbeat, while palpation is a method of feeling with the fingers or hands during physical examination. (So close, yet so different!)

The bottom line? You need an expert who is highly skilled in understanding medical terminology, these slight variations and the proper translations for each.

  1. Expertise: The field of medicine is vast with many sub-sectors and specialties within it. Believe it or not, there are medical interpreters who are trained specifically in these areas.  For example, if a patient is going in for a cardiology consultation, they might feel more at ease with a professional medical interpreter who has specific knowledge and experience in that field. Whether it’s talk about hypertension, the aorta or the difference between myocarditis and endocarditis, the interpreter can quickly translate and keep up with this medical terminology.

At the same time, a patient might not feel as comfortable or secure in a translator who has only worked with therapists, psychiatrists or mental health patients. Why? Because the two sectors are completely different! You run the risk of giving the patient the wrong guidance which may directly affect patient safety.

Keep this in mind when hiring a medical interpreter and ask for their qualifications in detail before deciding. Hold an interview, do a trial run and utilize references to add an extra layer of vetting.

  1. Targeting the Right Audience: The average person is not throwing around medical terms and definitions daily. While this is common practice in a healthcare facility or hospital, a patient will likely have no clue what they mean—even in English! Medical interpreters have the important job of not only understanding these terms but relaying them in a way that the patient understands what they mean. Plus, they still need to make sure nothing gets lost in translation and information is steeped in fact.

Key Competencies for Medical Interpreters

What should you look for when considering medical translation services? According to the National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare, there are six major components that professional medical interpreters should be mindful of:

Basic Language Skills

Interpreters should have strong public speaking skills and solid knowledge and comprehension of each language they are expected to translate.

Code of Ethics

Medical interpreters should have a general understanding of ethical standards and issues.  They should also have decision-making skills and maintain strict standards of confidentiality.

Cultural Issues

Interpreters should know the nuances of different cultural norms and expectations. The interpreter must be able to anticipate and recognize any disputes and/or misunderstandings between the patients and providers and can respond to them appropriately.

Healthcare Terminology

Interpreters should properly translate widely used medical terms and concepts, from parts of the human body to symptoms, disease types, treatments, healthcare specialties and medications.

Integrated Interpreting Skills

Medical interpreters should show mastery in conducting cross-linguistic interviews accurately and completely. They should be able to foster seamless communication and full understanding for both parties.

Translation of Simple Instructions

Interpreters should be able to create oral translations along with written translations of signage, packaging labels, medication and dosage instructions.

Tips for Having a Successful Interpreting Experience

Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering and working with a medical interpreter.

  • If possible, meet with the interpreter beforehand to provide more context and details on the patient case, and set goals for the interaction.
  • Let the interpreter sit next to or a little bit behind the patient.
  • Ask one question at a time.
  • Speak clearly, slowly, and in short sentences.
  • Prioritize having nor more than three keypoints.
  • Do not use expressions, slang words, or acronyms.
  • Ensure the patient has full understanding of the translations by using “teach back” or “show me” methods.
  • Use “I” statements vs. “she said this” or “tell him”.
  • Try to give sentence-by-sentence interpretation so that there is no risk of diverting from the main points.
  • Give the interpreter time to finish his/her translations before moving on to the next point.
  • Schedule short breaks in between long blocks of interpretation.
  • If time allows, have a post-session debrief to compare notes and correct any missed details.

Trust the experts at INGCO for All Your Healthcare Translations!

If there’s one key takeaway from this post, it’s that medical translation services is a highly specialized industry that requires qualified and trained professionals.

At INGCO, our team can work in more than 200 languages and adapt to any medical environment.  INGCO specialists are there for you in any situation. Using a mix of simultaneous and consecutive interpreting, our main priority is ensuring the most accurate and timely translations for all your needs.

Schedule a consultation with us today to see how we can support you with medical interpretation.