Conference Coverage

Trained interpreters essential for treating non–English-speaking patients



– Clinicians should resist the temptation to use untrained interpreters, such as a child, another relative, or their own limited language skills, when treating patients who cannot communicate in English, according to an expert reviewing this issue at the American Academy of Dermatology summer meeting.

Dr. Amy Chen

Dr. Amy Chen

In clinical encounters with patients who have limited English proficiency, “it is both our legal and our ethical responsibility to communicate through qualified interpreters,” reported Amy Y.Y. Chen, MD, who is affiliated with Central Connecticut Dermatology in Canton.

In many situations, interpreter services are required by law. This includes a provision of the 1963 Civil Rights Act that specifies these services should be made available to any individual with limited English proficiency receiving federal financial assistance (with the exception of Medicare Part B).

In reviewing this and other laws, Dr. Chen explained that many prohibitions are explicit. For example, it is against the law for clinicians to communicate with the patient through children, whether or not they are related to the patient. A patient’s adult companions are also prohibited from interpreting unless the patient has provided express permission.

Despite the rules, some clinicians might be tempted to forgo a translator when none is readily available, opting for an improvised solution. Dr. Chen said that this is ill advised even when it is not illegal.

“There are a lot of potential problems with using nonprofessional interpreters, starting with the issue of confidentiality,” Dr. Chen warned.

As defined by the Department of Health & Human Services, a qualified interpreter establishes competency by developing familiarity with specialized terminology; by communicating accurately, effectively, and impartially; and by recognizing the ethical issues, including confidentiality, essential to their role.

By itself, language fluency might not be sufficient. Many physicians have conversational fluency in one or more languages other than English, but Dr. Chen pointed out that complex and nuanced clinical descriptions might be difficult to follow for a nonnative speaker. Moreover, many individuals who have no problem posing questions in a foreign language don’t do nearly as well in following the answers.

As interpreters, family members can be particularly problematic. In addition to the issues of confidentiality and medical terminology, a family member might have his or her own agenda that influences how questions and answers are conveyed.

Moreover, family members and others untrained in translating might edit answers based on their own sense of relevance. Many clinicians working through an interpreter will recognize the experience of receiving a yes or no answer after a lengthy discussion between a nontrained interpreter and patient. In such situations, the clinician can reasonably worry that important information was lost.

Typically, major hospitals already offer a systematic approach to providing interpreters when needed, but physicians working in private practice or other smaller practice settings might not. According to Dr. Chen, who recently collaborated on review of this issue (J Am Acad Dermatol. 2019 Mar;80:829-31), they should.

Interpreter services are available by telephone or Internet. Fees typically fall in the range of $2-$5 per minute. In offices with bilingual staff members, formal medical interpreter training might make sense. The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters can help in this process.

When using a medical interpreter, Dr. Chen had some tips.

“Maintain eye contact and talk to the patient,” said Dr. Chen, suggesting that the interpreter, if present in the room, be seated next to or behind the patient. Whether the interpreter is in the room or participating remotely, Dr. Chen advised against speaking through the interpreter with such phases as “tell her that.” Rather, she advised speaking directly to the patient with the interpreter providing the translation.

More practically, Dr. Chen recommended speaking slowly and posing only one question at a time. She also recommended strategies to elicit reassurance that the patient has understood what was communicated. Not least, she recommended a “show me” approach in which a patient can repeat or demonstrate what he or she has learned.

Citing evidence that poor and incomplete translation contributes to medical errors and patient dissatisfaction, Dr. Chen reiterated that engaging unbiased trained translators is advisable for good clinical care even if it were not mandated by law.

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