Interpreters have never been more important to healthcare industries around the world than they are now. Multiculturalism has meant that hospitals have to prioritise their language service offerings.

The terminology used by doctors, surgeons and other healthcare providers is complex and can be difficult to get to grips with even when you’re both speaking the same language. However, if one has a different mother tongue to the other the barrier between doctor and patient can feel insurmountable. The risk of this is that the patient’s health could suffer.

One way to ensure this does not happen is for the hospital to provide an interpreter. An experienced medical interpreter is always a more reliable option than a member of the patient’s family or someone they know who is bilingual, as the professional will be familiar with the complicated terminology used by the doctor. This can be difficult for someone without knowledge of the healthcare industry to interpret correctly.

It’s a family affair

Another benefit to hiring a professional is the lack of emotional involvement. They are there to simply convey what the doctor is saying to the patient and relay any questions back. A family member could become emotional, may ask their own questions rather than their relative’s or might start summarising what the doctor is saying.

However, that’s not to say that inviting a bilingual relative as well should be avoided. In fact, it’s something that hospitals could make a point of doing in addition to hiring the services of an experienced medical interpreter as the two can work well in tandem together.

Kiran Gupta, a resident at the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts, writes in that not only did she encounter a language barrier while working with one of her first patients (Mr V), but also a cultural one. Although an interpreter was always present during her meetings with Mr V and she could see him nodding along in agreement with what she was saying, Dr Gupta was puzzled that the results she expected were not being seen.

It soon transpired that it was not speaking different languages that was preventing the message getting across – the medical interpreter had helped them overcome this challenge – but the cultural differences between the doctor and her patient. While Mr V had to take his prescribed medication regularly to stop his condition worsening, he came from a culture that distrusted hospitals and believed taking medication all the time was bad for the body. As a result, he had not been following his doctor’s instructions. Worried her patient’s health was deteriorating, Dr Gupta called Mr V’s daughter who agreed to come in.

“Although the interpreter was present, Mr V’s daughter often interjected, talking to both her father and myself, switching back and forth from English to their native language. I could tell that Mr V was engaged. Rather than smile and nod politely, he leaned forward and asked many questions,” Dr Gupta explains. It was thanks to his daughter’s involvement he agreed to start taking more of his medication regularly.

Spread the word

Hospitals face numerous other challenges in their treatment of people who speak a different language, and perhaps the main one is ensuring patients know they are entitled to an interpreter when they visit. Anamaria Ogahara is from the Philippines but moved to Japan with her husband. Both cultural differences and a fear of the language barrier prevented her from going to hospital when she needed to.

Ms Ogahara tells the Japan Times that when she started to suffer menstrual pains and migraines, she was unwilling to go to hospital as she was not fluent in Japanese and didn’t want to ask her husband to take time off work to accompany her. So she left it until the pain got unbearable, by which point her condition had worsened. In the end, she had to have a full hysterectomy to remove a benign tumour, but doctors told her they may have been able to extract the tumour alone if she had come in when it was smaller.

That’s why it’s so important for hospitals to not only provide interpreters but to also make it clear to patients that the service is available. The Journal and Courier notes that the terminology used in healthcare can be confusing, which is why Franciscan St Elizabeth Health and Indiana University Health Arnett in Lafayette, Indiana, both provide the services of Spanish interpreters. While Spanish is the most required language, the hospitals also provide interpreting services in Mandarin, Chinese, Russian and Korean, as well as a phone line that links straight to a professional interpreting service.

Andrea Johnson, a certified medical interpreter for Indiana University Health Arnett, says being able to understand what their doctor is saying feels as though “heaven has opened its doors” for the patient. She adds that although medical interpreting is hard work, it is worthwhile as the service she provides is so valuable.

As populations become more diverse, Language Insight believes the use of medical interpreters in hospitals – and numerous other public sector organisations – will become more vital than ever. However, perhaps the main priority for the healthcare industry right now is ensuring that foreign language-speaking patients and their families know they are entitled to take advantage of this service.

What are your opinions on interpreting in the healthcare industry?