The role and value of professional medical interpreters in the post-COVID-19 world

Commonwealth Medicine is now ForHealth Consulting at UMass Chan Medical School. More information available here. This content has not been updated with the new name.

Imagine you were learning how to use a parachute, but your instructor spoke a different language. Since there isn’t any room for error, you probably would choose to have clear instructions given in a language you understand.

The same is true for healthcare services. If you were dealing with a severe illness, you would want your diagnosis fully explained in a language you understand, along with details on how to follow the prescribed treatment to ensure your full and safe recovery.

This example speaks to the critical role and responsibility of medical interpreters.

Approximately 1 in 10 working adults in the United States has limited English-language proficiency1. And roughly 15% of American adults age 18+ (more than 37.5 million people) have some difficulty hearing2. For these millions of people, visiting a healthcare provider and not having access to a professional medical interpreter is like receiving skydiving instruction in a foreign language.

The use of medical interpreters in encounters with healthcare providers improves compliance and clinical outcomes and reduces disparities in access to quality healthcare services. It is also the law. Part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other subsequent legislation, require providers who receive federal funds to offer “meaningful access” to healthcare services so that patients can make informed decisions regarding their treatment.

Many healthcare providers, though, provide interpreter services through informal or ad hoc means. They rely on a staff member or a member of the patient’s family to translate and answer questions about potentially complex diagnoses or procedures. The risk is that important details are left out or misunderstood, with potentially hazardous consequences.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the need for qualified, professional medical interpreters. On any typical day, hospitals are inherently stressful environments. But the conditions of working during the pandemic—where high volumes of critically ill patients increase noise levels and the risk for delays, and where patients may be intubated and, therefore, unable to communicate—make timely, effective communications even more critical.

At the same time, the pandemic, with its extreme risk for disease transmission, highlights the critical need and the value of trained professionals medical interpreters, who are well-versed in universal precautions and infection control protocols.

In addition to possessing the highest degree of language fluency, medical interpreters also have a thorough understanding of medical terminology, diagnoses and treatments. They are trained to “read the moment,” so they know when to be transparent (i.e., provide word-for-word translation) and when to step forward to assist with forming questions and interpreting answers. And they are familiar with laws and regulations regarding privacy and reimbursement.

But perhaps the essential skill for a professional medical interpreter is the high degree of cultural knowledge and sensitivity they bring to their work. The interpreter’s ability to accurately read non-verbal communication and cues—gestures, posture, energy rooted in culture or nationality—is crucial to helping the patient and provider fully understand each other. And, in this way, reduces the risks associated with misunderstanding a diagnosis or a treatment plan.

A medical interpreter’s training, knowledge, and cultural sensitivity removes emotional bias and helps reduce the trauma and anxiety of the situation. It helps build trust between the patient and their family and their physicians or care team. And because they help improve compliance with prescription and treatment plans, they also help reduce the risk for more extended hospital stays and adverse outcomes and, therefore, help reduce the cost of care and the risk of litigation.

In the post-COVID-19 world, where telehealth services will be far more prevalent—possibly the rule, rather than the exception—medical interpreters will also possess the technical skills to integrate their services into any electronic medium seamlessly. And to do so in any setting, whether it is a hospital, doctor’s office, the courts, or a conference.

At Commonwealth Medicine, the Massachusetts Medical Interpreter Training program (a program of the MassAHEC Network) is taught by highly qualified instructors and designed for a wide variety of participants, from those just entering the profession to experienced interpreters.

  2. NIH National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders