1.) Use a professional interpreter. Relatives of the patient should never be used as interpreters. Delicate or sensitive questions may sometimes need to be discussed without the judgment of a relative. Interpreters follow a professional code of ethics and are accustomed to working in a health environment. They respect all confidentiality, protecting patients’ privacy as well as their health.
2.) Consult with the interpreter before meeting with the patient. Let them explain to him or her the goals and key terms of the medical procedure or patient history, so the interpreter can be sufficiently prepared. This also permits the interpreter to alert the medical professional beforehand about any cultural taboos to avoid.
3.) Speak directly to the patient – not to the interpreter. Make eye contact with the patient. If possible, avoid jargon and technical terms. Instead of telling a patient you will order an MRI to identify probable causes of TBI, tell the patient you will order a special imaging test that will help you identify the possible causes of his or her brain problem.
4.) Assume the interpreter will interpret word-for-word what you are saying. The interpreter’s role is to be completely unbiased in order to effectively communicate between the health care professional and the patient. He or she also decodes the cultural expectations of the patient and explains them to the health professional.
5.) Follow precedents imposed in federal regulation such as Executive Order 13166: Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency or Department of Health and Human Services Guidance Regarding National Origin Discrimination Affecting Limited English Proficient Patients (68 Fed. Reg. 47311).
The advantages to working with a professional health care interpreter are numerous – not to mention required by federal and state law. Inadequate communication may lead to costly unnecessary testing and even lawsuits. By using a professional interpreter and improving the doctor-patient relationship, hospitals can reduce costs and patients will receive a better quality of care.
For more information, read “Other Words, Other Meanings,” by Alexander Bischoff and Louis Loutan.