Skip to content

Best Practices for Working with Medical Interpreters

medical interpreters

If you’re a healthcare provider who works with some of the 25 million limited English proficient (LEP) patients in the U.S., you know how important interpretation is to successful patient outcomes. Poor communication increases the chance of medical errors with any patient, and LEP individuals are especially vulnerable in this regard.

Providing high-value language services for LEP patients requires the use of trained medical interpreters (not relying on "ad-hoc" interpreters, such as family members or friends). But simply having an interpreter present, whether by phone or in the room, does not guarantee success. Clinicians should feel well-prepared to communicate with LEP patients via an interpreter to ensure they are confident and effective. The following best practices can be integrated into any team training around working with medical interpreters.


Best practices for communicating via medical interpreters

Prior to speaking with the patient

  • Meet briefly with the medical interpreter before the patient interview. Take this time to set goals, build rapport, and provide any clinical background that may be relevant.
  • Note the interpreter’s name in the patient’s chart.
  • Plan for extra time for the patient’s appointment.

During the patient interview

  • Always address the patient, not the interpreter.
  • Use first-person “I” statements, not “he said,” or “tell her.”
  • Prioritize three or four key points to make during the interview.
  • Remember that the patient will likely understand some English, so don’t make comments you wouldn't want overheard by the patient.

Dialogue tips

  • Keep your statements short.
  • Ask only one question at a time.
  • Avoid medical jargon and idiomatic expressions.
  • Use the “teach back” technique to confirm understanding with the patient and agreement with the plan.

After the patient interview

  • Debrief with the interpreter following the patient interview.
  • If you have questions about cultural or emotional subtleties, use the interpreter as a resource.
  • Make corrections to the record if necessary.