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November 1, 2019 |

What You Should Know About Medical Interpreting 

Medical interpreting is a niche that requires professionalism, in-depth knowledge of the medical terminology in both languages, and discipline. Medical interpreters are intermediaries in delicate moments that include patients, their carers, doctors, and clinicians in medical circumstances.

Medical interpretation influences communication between doctors and patients, so it isn’t something that any bilingual person could do after spending a few hours in a hospital. It’s a working environment that must be free from communication errors, as they could have significant consequences on people’s lives and health.

Medical interpreting is necessary for doctors to make a correct diagnostic, explain treatments, and discuss the medical history of patients. It’s also useful for clinical trials when clinicians need to make sure that all patients understand the risks of taking part in the research. 

Communication Errors Can Have “Adverse Effects”

Medical interpreting and medical translation, in general, require 100 percent accuracy. That’s because the message that the interpreter transmits on behalf of the patient influences medical decisions. 

Family members or other ad-hoc interpreters don’t have the training and experience of professional medical interpreters. However, it happens all too often for social workers, nurses, and even doctors to become interpreters when hospitals and other healthcare institutions can’t find a professional linguist. 

What patients and doctors often don’t know is that medical interpreters have mastered special skills that enable them to do their job. A person who speaks both languages pretty well lacks the knowledge and training necessary for smooth communication in a medical context. 

What may seem like the best term to describe health issues may create confusion. For instance, any error in the way an interpreter describes pain or symptoms can lead to the wrong diagnosis. In this scenario, the patient risks receiving an inappropriate treatment, which might have significant medical consequences. 

The Most Common Errors in Medical Interpreting

Due to its sensitive nature and a shortage of language experts, medical interpreting deals with multiple communication errors. Among them, the most common are: 

  • Omission. This is by far, the most common issue in medical interpretation. It happens when interpreters forget instructions from the doctors or minimize the importance of specific details that could describe symptoms. Omissions are also consequences of telephone interpreting when the medical interpreters can’t always see the patient. In this case, even professional medical interpreters can miss a series of significant clues given by body language and gestures. 
  • False fluency. This happens when interpreters without proper training start making up words to describe symptoms and medical conditions. It’s mostly caused by poor knowledge of the medical terminology in one or both languages.  
  • Substitution. In this situation, medical interpreters don’t know the exact term between terminology in the two languages. As a consequence, they translate the message using the closest term that could be a good fit in the context. Unfortunately, in medical translation, what may seem like a synonym could be a false friend–words in different languages that sound similar, but have significantly different meanings. 
  • Editorialization. This communication error consists of adding opinions to the translation. Even if the interpreter indicates which parts of the translation are introduced opinions, medical decisions could be influenced by the extra information. Another case of editorialization is when the interpreter instructs patients on how to answer specific questions in the forms. 
  • Addition. Similar to editorialization, additions happen when the interpreter adds details to facilitate communication, but without mentioning it. This practice usually changes the initial message, sometimes with severe consequences for the dialogue between parties. 

Professional Interpreters Are Less Likely to Make Mistakes

According to a study on errors in medical interpretation, hospital interpreters make fewer mistakes than ad-hoc interpreters. Moreover, professionals are less likely to make errors that have clinical consequences than bilinguals with no training in the niche. 

The study also revealed that failures are more common than we may think in this particular field. On average, interpreters make 31 mistakes per encounter! The most common errors that happen during medical interpreting are omissions (around 52% of all errors). 

Professional medical interpreters are often prone to errors. The medical domain is pretty vast, making it almost impossible for a linguist to have complete proficiency in both languages. Moreover, medical interpreters are often working under pressure and with limited access to resources such as dictionaries, translation memories, or supporting materials. 

Types of Interpreting Solutions for Medical Situations

Medical interpreting comes in three forms. Depending on the interpreter’s availability and the resources of the healthcare institution, a foreign patient can benefit from interpreting services in-person, over the phone, or through a video call. 

Sometimes, it’s also a matter of how serious the situation is. Some cases require the personal presence of the interpreter, while others can just rely on a phone call. 

1) In-person medical interpreting means that the interpreter shares the same room with the patient and the healthcare providers. It’s the best solution, especially in complicated medical situations when any detail can be critical for the medical act. Not only does the presence of the interpreter smooth communication, but it can also add comfort and support for the patient. 

2) Telephone interpreting costs less, but it has downsides that can influence quality. Medical interpreters can’t see the patients, so they’re more likely to miss information that could be helpful in the translation process. It’s uncomfortable and inefficient when working with older patients or children. Telephone interpreting isn’t recommended in situations in which the doctor needs to transmit bad news to patients or carers, a case in which a personal touch could ease the communication between parties. 

3) Video interpreting is similar to telephone interpreting, with the advantage that the interpreter can see the patient and the doctors involved in the case. It can be helpful, especially when the patient has difficulties in explaining symptoms and medical history. 

The Need for Professional Medical Interpreters

Emergencies often force healthcare providers to work with ad-hoc interpreters or general interpreters with basic or zero knowledge in the niche. It can be an acceptable solution when patients need immediate treatment, but it shouldn’t become best practice.

Interpreters with no specific skills and training in medical interpreting will make a significant number of mistakes, and their slips are more likely to influence the medical outcome. That’s why hospitals and similar institutions must keep an updated database of medical interpreters who can support doctors and clinicians.