Onsite Interpreters: Avoid Communication Barriers in Health Sector

Need for interpreting in the health sector

The Need for Interpreting in the Health Sector

Accurate interpreting services are important in many spheres of human activity, but perhaps none more so than in the health sector. Without precise and empathetic communication between health professionals and their patients, the consequences can be dire.

Patients need to express their feelings and describe their symptoms and history to nurses, doctors and specialists. Likewise, these professionals must be able to communicate effectively with their patients. They need to ask questions, describe diagnoses, suggest treatment possibilities and provide advice about medication.

None of this is possible when there is a language barrier between healthcare providers and healthcare recipients. This is commonly the case in many parts of the world now due to immigration, family reunion and refugee schemes. While many migrants are in fact skilled professionals who may need to show that they have the language ability needed to live and work successfully in the country they have migrated to, this doesn’t always mean that their family members who accompany them have the same proficiency.

This is why many large hospitals and medical facilities, located in places where there is a high migrant or refugee residency rate employ onsite interpreters as well as have a sophisticated telephone interpreting service which they can call on when needed.

What is Onsite Interpreting?

Onsite interpreting is simply the use of professional or trained interpreters who are based in a particular health facility, such as a large hospital. Onsite interpreters are most likely to be employed when there are one or two predominant languages other than the native language commonly used by patients who use that facility. Of course, it would be impractical to employ dozens of onsite interpreters at each and every hospital or medical centre, each interpreter specialising in the interpreting of one or two specific languages.

Telephone interpreting services are often used in the health sector when there emerges a language barrier which cannot be satisfied by an onsite interpreter. Which language or languages should be covered by an onsite interpreting capability depends very much on the local needs. This could vary tremendously.

For example, many U.S. hospitals, especially those in any of the southern states, have a need for Spanish speaking interpreters, simply because Spanish is such an important second language in much of the U.S. By contrast, in parts of Australia where indigenous languages may still be used by the local population, there would be a need for an interpreter who can speak in the local indigenous language.

As these are often very different around outback Australia, one size fits all for interpreters doesn’t work as well as it might do in the U.S. In Western Europe, which has received many Syrian refugees over the last few years, it would make sense for Arabic speaking interpreters to be based in the larger, urban hospitals where refugees have been relocated.

Qualifications for an Onsite Interpreter

Most professional translators and interpreters take up a specialised field of translation or interpreting early on in their professional life. It’s more lucrative for them and better for their clients. In the health sector, where there is a need for onsite interpreting services, it is best to employ interpreters who not only have fluency in the required language(s), but also have familiarity with health services. A retired nurse or doctor would make a fine interpreter as long as they are trained in interpreting!

The Main Requirements for an Effective Onsite Health Interpreter then are:

  • Fluency in the language(s) required
  • Familiarity with the health industry and medical practice and terminology
  • Training, preferably qualifications and experience as an interpreter

While the odd help from someone who works at a hospital when there is an emergency need who is bilingual can be useful, it should be used sparingly or not at all in favour of a professionally qualified health services interpreter.

The other useful prerequisite for an onsite interpreter is someone who is familiar with the culture of the people who need to use the service. Cultural sensitivity is essential when it comes to good communication.

Onsite Interpreters Versus Telephone Interpreters

Access to a telephone interpreting service can be very useful when there are potentially multiple language barriers in anyone hospital. However, when it comes to choosing between a phone interpreter and an onsite interpreter for a commonly used non-native language, the priority should be to use an onsite interpreter. This is because the onsite interpreter will be physically present together with the patient and health care provider.

An important part of the skill of interpreting is to use body language and facial signals as well as the actual spoken word to aid in understanding a patient’s message. Telephone interpreters are best used when there is a one-off the need for an interpreter in an unusual language.

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