Finding a Medical Interpreter
If English isn't your first language, consider bringing along a medical interpreter next time you see a doctor.

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Picture of a woman interpreter Finding a Medical Interpreter

Getting the best medical care depends on good communication between health care provider and patient. But what if you and your doctor do not speak the same language? Or what if your heavy accent makes it hard for a doctor to understand what you're saying?

Studies show that language differences can affect health care quality. It's important to understand what a doctor is telling or asking you, and to be able to discuss concerns. Studies have shown that Latinos with limited English skills received lower quality care. There could be many reasons for this. It could be that a doctor thinks a question about symptoms was understood when it wasn't. Medicine instructions could be misread. Also, information collected by staff is more likely to contain errors when there are language differences.

Even when materials are translated, speakers on audio recordings may use many technical words or speak too quickly. Focus groups in one study complained that translation quality was also poor in brochures. Other times, translations do not address cultural differences. For example, South Asians may not know what margarine is when reading diet advice.

Public health experts maintain that removing language barriers is important to ensuring foreign-born people receive the same quality health care as other Americans.

Professional medical interpreters
The talks you have with your doctor are very important in getting good care. If a doctor doesn't speak your language, consider bringing an interpreter with you.

  • Medical interpreters are trained to work in doctor offices, hospitals, clinics, and home-health settings. They can repeat what the healthcare provider says in your language and help you read medicine instructions. Their training includes knowledge of medical terms and cultural issues, as well as foreign language skills.
  • Medical translators have writing skills to convert text from one language to another. This service often involves legal healthcare documents or textbooks.

Most people who don't speak English will just need an interpreter. You might want a translator if you need help reading HIPAA laws or an informed consent form.

Finding an interpreter
Some people bring a relative or friend to the doctor's office to help them interpret. But for others, using a friend or relative can lead to problems or role conflicts. Being bilingual does not mean someone understands medical terms. Plus, there may be personal matters you don't want to discuss with a relative.

You may be able to find an interpreter through a community group or your doctor's office. Hospitals and some doctors may provide the service at no cost. You can also find directories online. Many certified interpreters and translators belong to a professional association or work through an agency. Check out the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care at ncihc.org.

Find someone you feel comfortable with and who treats you with respect. You'll need to trust this person with personal information. Ask about his or her credentials, experience, and references, as well as:

  • Cultural awareness
  • Fluency in your language and English
  • Knowledge of the health care system

It's best to meet with your interpreter before your doctor visit. Brief him or her about your symptoms, condition, and what you want to discuss with the doctor. Remember that this person should only be interpreting, not counseling you or advising you about your care. Be sure the interpreter understands all your concerns so they can be explained accurately to the doctor.

By Eve Glicksman, Staff Writer
Created on 07/15/2011
Updated on 07/18/2011
Sources:
  • National Council on Interpreting in Health Care. FAQs for healthcare professionals.
  • National Health Law Program. What's in a word?
  • Gonzalez HM, Vega WA, Tarraf W. Health care quality perceptions among foreign-born Latinos and the importance of speaking the same language. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. 2010;23(6):745-752.
  • Samanta, A, Johnson MRD, Guo F, Adebajo A. Snails in bottles and language cuckoos: an evaluation of patient information resources for South Asians with osteomalacia. Rheumatology. 2009;48(3):299-303.
  • National Institute on Aging. Talking with your doctor: a guide for older people.
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