Clinician's Corner - Minnesota Department of Health

Working with Medical Interpreters Quick Guide

On this page:
Guidelines for Using Medical Interpreters
Medical Interpreter Facts
References/Journal Articles
Full Provider Guide Chapter: Medical Interpreters

Guidelines for Using Medical Interpreters

  • Use qualified interpreters to interpret.
    • Do not depend on children or other relatives and friends to interpret.
  • Have a brief pre- and post-interview meeting with the interpreter.
    • Establish a good working relationship with the interpreter.
    • Expect the interpreter to take notes if things get complicated.
    • Expect the interpreter to interrupt when necessary for clarification.
  • Plan to allow enough time for the interpreted session.

  • Address yourself to the interviewee, not to the interpreter.
    • Don’t say anything that you don’t want the other party to hear.
  • Use words, not just gestures, to convey your meaning.
    • Be prepared to repeat yourself in different words if your message is not understood.
    • Speak in a normal voice, clearly, and not too fast.
    • Avoid jargon and technical terms.
    • Keep your utterances short, pausing to permit interpretation.
    • Ask only one question at a time.
  • Dealing with cultural differences and the personality of the patient is primarily the provider’s job, not the interpreter’s.

Medical Interpreter Facts

  • The need for clarity and understanding is paramount in any setting where people seek services. But in a hospital or clinic, life-and-death-decisions hinge on immediate, accurate communication. The consequences of poor communication can be devastating. Inaccurate history-taking, unnecessary testing, and misdiagnosis are just a few of the risks.
  • Federal law recognizes these potential risks to health care consumers by mandating “linguistic accessibility to health care” under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Minnesota law also requires public health care institutions to provide services to people with limited English proficiency.
  • Contact your patient’s health plan to find out how to access an interpreter. If possible, match your patient and interpreter by gender and age.

References/Journal Articles

Ahmed, R, Bowen, J, O’Donnell, W. Cultural competence and language interpreter services in Minnesota. Minnesota Medicine, 2004; 87(12):40-2.

Beyene Y. Medical disclosure and refugees. Telling bad news to Ethiopian patients. West J Med, 1992;157:328-332.

Carrasquillo O, Orav EJ, , Brennan TA, Burstin HR. Impact of language barriers on patient satisfaction in an emergency department. Journal of General Medicine, 1999; 14: 82-87.

Flores G. The impact of medical interpreter services on the quality of health care: A systematic review. Medical Care Research and Review, 2005; 62:255-299.

Gandhi TK, Burstin HR, Cook EF, Puopolo AL, Haas JS, Brennan TA,Bates DW. Drug complications in outpatients. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2000; 15:149-54.

Hampers LC, McNulty JE. Professional interpreters and bilingual physicians in a pediatric emergency department: Effect on resource utilization. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2002; 156:1108-1113.

Hudelson, P. Improving patient-provider communication: Insights from interpreters. Family Practice, 2005; 22:311-316.

Jacobs EA, Shepard DS, Suaya JA, Stone EL. Overcoming language barriers in health care: Costs and benefits of interpreter services. American Journal of Public Health, 2004; 94:866-869.

Kisken P, Kisken W. Consent problems and the Southeast Asian refugee. Wisconsin Medical Journal, 1990; Nov:639-646.

Leyva, M, Sharif, I, Ozuah, P. Health literacy among Spanish-speaking Latino parents with limited English proficiency. Ambulatory Pediatrics, 2005; 5:56-59.

Ku L, Flores G. Pay now or pay later: Providing interpreter services in health care. Health Affairs, 2005; 24:435-444.

Morales, LS. The impact of interpreters on parents’ experiences with ambulatory care for their children. Medical Care Research and Review, 2006; 63:110-128.

Williams M, et al. Inadequate functional health literacy among patients at two public hospitals. JAMA, 1995; 274:1677-1720.

Full Provider Guide Chapter: Medical Interpreters

Updated Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 04:07PM