The quality of a doctor-patient relationship has a strong impact on a patient’s life. Patients who leave an appointment feeling as if they’ve been understood by their physicians are likely to be more engaged with their health care than those who have not been treated in the same manner. During medical emergencies, the ability of both the healthcare provider and patient to understand each other is indispensable; just one moment of misunderstanding can lead to irreversible consequences.
The idea of effective communication in medical settings sounds so much like a no-brainer that too often it is taken for granted. A few months ago, we had the privilege of interviewing Liliana Crane, a medical interpreter at U of R. From that interview, we came away with the knowledge that much more work needs to be done to ensure that LEP patients (Limited English Proficiency) receive the care that they need with the help of medical interpretation services. A recent article published in NPR.org is reinforcing this point with more real-life stories of how a lack of medical interpretation has impacted families.
One such story is that of Marlon Munoz and his wife. Munoz, who currently works in radiology and as a volunteer medical interpreter at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, recalls his experience of having to pass on a breast cancer diagnosis to his wife days after she underwent a breast biopsy. Munoz had to serve as the go-between between his wife who is a native Spanish speaker, and her doctor who spoke no Spanish. The burden was unbearable and Munoz struggled emotionally to deliver the news to his wife.
The lack of a medical interpreter created more difficulties in the time period following her chemotherapy, during which she was given a choice between several types of medications or surgery to help control her hormones. Without a qualified Spanish medical interpreter present to explain the side effects of each option, Munoz and his wife could only make decisions with the information they received. This included complex medical terminology that would be incomprehensible for a native English speaker who has limited or no medical knowledge. This resulted in a year of emotional and physical pain at the hands of the medications until she finally decided to have the surgery.
17 years later, Munoz and his wife are still reeling from the experience that would have been less painful if they had access to a professional medical interpreter. Munoz’s story and many others show how critical medical interpretation is in its role of optimizing an LEP patient’s physical and mental health. A qualified medical interpreter makes a big difference in the quality of care that an LEP patient receives and using any other person who is less than qualified to help—like a family member—puts the patient at risk.
Oftentimes, medical visits require the support of medical document translation in addition to interpretation services. This is common for patients who come from South America to the U.S. for a second opinion with a health care provider. Sometimes, these patients also come to the U.S. for their medical cases to be reviewed. In both cases, the hospitals or clinics will need to receive certified translations of all medical reports, including lab results and surgeries in order to properly examine or treat these patients.
Medical interpreters are not only measured by the depth of their medical knowledge, or how much they are able to interpret—each of these can be developed over time with further education. A good interpreter knows how to moderate the flow of information during the interpretation process. Additionally, a reliable medical interpreter understands how it feels to be a patient in an environment that is culturally and linguistically foreign and takes measures to make the patient feel at ease during the medical interpretation process. Here are some of the techniques that great medical interpreters use to facilitate successful communication between patient and physician:
Asking the patient whether or not he understands what the doctor has just said based on the interpretation. Even as the interpreter and patient speak the same language, the complexity of medical speak can still make it difficult for a patient to understand what is being said. Medical interpreter Liliana Crane uses the method of checking with the client as she interprets, to make sure they are following what the doctor is saying. As soon as doubt is expressed by the patient, Liliana asks the doctor to repeat or explain further.
Adapt their “speech register”. A good interpreter also respects the fact that each patient has varying levels of education. A highly experienced medical interpreter knows how to adapt their own “speech register” so as to ensure the patient understands what they are saying. In Liliana’s experience, Over half of the Latino patient’s she’s worked with did not receive the education necessary to understand medical language, which requires her to adjust her speech register by using simpler sentences, slowing down her speech, and more.
Create a calm and neutral environment that’s conducive to effective communication. In traumatic medical settings, emotions and feelings of urgency are running rampant in ways that can impact communication. No matter how devastating the situation, a skilled medical interpreter knows to force their emotions aside and deliver difficult news to keep the channel of clear communication going.
No one’s health should ever be left up to chance, including LEP patients. If you know of someone who has limited knowledge of English who needs to seek a healthcare provider, do not assume that the patient will ‘somehow’ receive the treatment they need through the help of a bilingual friend or relative. Make sure they seek the services of a qualified medical interpreter. If they aren’t able to find a qualified medical interpreter, reach out to a professional translation company that can provide reliable medical interpretation services. It could help heal or save a life.