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A Clinician's Guide to the Use of Interpreters in Healthcare

use of interpreters in healthcare

Effective communication is the lifeblood of healthcare interactions, and this becomes particularly complex when dealing with patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) or who speak different languages. The use of interpreters in healthcare offers a solution, acting as a bridge to clear communication. But how can healthcare professionals ensure that they're leveraging this resource effectively?

The vital role of interpreters in healthcare

Interpreters provide an essential connection to effective communication with LEP patients. The use of interpreters in healthcare goes beyond merely having a qualified interpreter present; it requires understanding and implementing specific strategies to guarantee success in patient interactions. Here, we outline five tips for working with interpreters that can immensely help any clinician.

5 Tips for Improving the use of interpreters in healthcare 

1. Stay focused on the patient

The patient must always remain the primary focus, even while the interpreter is translating. This approach communicates respect for the patient and simulates a direct conversation. It also lets you observe the patient's body language and inflection, which can reveal their level of comfort and trust.

2. Speak clearly, pause frequently, and check for understanding 

When there is a language barrier present, it is especially important to make the conversation as understandable as possible. Keeping a comfortable pace, breaking the conversation into short segments, and having the patient “play back” his/her understanding are all useful tools for ensuring clarity and comprehension. It can also be helpful to encourage the interpreter to clarify terms with you, and to “replay” the interpretation back to you if you have any concerns about accuracy.

3. Avoid medical jargon and acronyms

Medical terms can be confusing to non-medical professionals. Instead of assuming that these terms are understood, using plain language and always confirming comprehension is better. This principle is vital in the effective use of interpreters in healthcare.

4. Plan for extra time 

Interpretation will lengthen your patient interaction since every word must be spoken twice. Planning for this extra time helps reduce impatience and fosters trust and confidence in your care.

5. Inform the patient first when you need to ask the interpreter a question, and don't interrupt.

Trust forms the foundation of a strong patient relationship. To build and maintain this trust, avoid interrupting the patient and always inform them of any side conversations with the interpreter.

Successful use of interpreters in healthcare 

Working with interpreters in a medical setting requires more than merely having them in the room or on the phone. By focusing on the patient, speaking clearly, avoiding jargon, planning for extra time, and maintaining trust through transparent communication, clinicians can make the most of the use of interpreters in healthcare.

Learn more: Office guide to communicating with limited English proficient patients  |  American Medical Association


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