Updated: Jun 1
It’s easy to understand why medical interpreters are helpful. After all, even if you speak a foreign language well, wouldn’t you prefer to hear and ask about important information in your native language in order to be sure sure you’ve understood as clearly as possible?
This question is especially important in a diverse country like the US. Most surveys and census results indicate about 8-9% of the US population has limited English proficiency, which means millions of patients likely need - or would prefer - a medical interpreter.
Since 1964, healthcare providers in the US have been legally required to offer one to all patients who need one. But not all healthcare providers call on qualified medical interpreters. Researchers from UMass Chan Medical school have found that instead, many will ask someone on their staff who speaks the patient’s language, or else rely on someone in the patient’s family.
But relying on someone to fill this role who doesn’t have formal training that includes knowledge of how to translate medical terms and describe complicated procedures or diagnoses means putting a patient at risk.
For instance, a 2021 report revealed that non-English speaking and limited English proficiency (LEP) patients who weren’t provided with a qualified medical interpreter
● had higher rates of delayed surgery and care due to not understanding instructions like how to prepare for procedures
● had longer hospital stays
● had a higher risk of being readmitted to the hospital because instructions on managing conditions, medication administration, and warning symptoms weren’t clearly understood
Additionally, a recent study that examined communication and patient education during the height of the Covid-19 crisis found that patients who didn’t have access to a medical interpreter had higher COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates.
So, if medical interpreters are required by US law and help non-English speaking and LEP patients, you may be wondering why healthcare providers wouldn’t use them.
The issue mostly comes down to time and money.
Health problems and emergencies can strike at any time, but healthcare providers who rely on individual interpreters or insist on having on-site interpreters may have to wait for them to be available.
Cost may also be an issue, with an Annals of Family Medicine article dubbing them “considerable”.
Because of these drawbacks, you may be wondering if AI like ChatGPT replace a human medical interpreter.
After all, machine translation has grown in proficiency by leaps and bounds. Currently, AI like ChatGPT can often imitate human writing with uncanny accuracy.
This would solve the issue of the time and cost problem: Machines are always available, and cost little or nothing to use.
But there are some fields where machine translation just can’t cut it. Medical interpreting is one of them.
A qualified medical interpreter doesn’t just translate what a doctor and patient are saying. In addition to their extensive and impeccable knowledge of medical terminology and vocabulary in both languages, certified medical interpreters are also experts in communicating in both cultures, something that helps when delivering diagnoses and explaining care options and solutions.
For instance, in many Western cultures, decisions about care are made by the individual patient, while in many Eastern cultures, this may be a family or group decision. Some cultures view certain health issues and diagnoses as shameful, while others see them simply as a medical condition. A certified interpreter would be aware of these differences and take them into account.
And then there are the even more subtle cues, like body language, which can also differ across cultures.
Although AI can do an impressive job in many fields, it’s not capable of understanding these kinds of nuances.
But that brings us back to the issues that often block healthcare providers from working with certified medical interpreters: time and cost.
Luckily, these problems aren’t as unsolvable as they might seem. For one thing, an option like remote interpreting, where the medical interpreter isn’t physically present but works via phone or video, means that medical interpreters are available anytime.
Some qualified translation and interpreting companies have a stable of skilled professionals located around the world, ensuring that someone will always be available to interpret. aiaTranslations, for instance, is one of these companies.
Cost, the other major barrier to working with a medical interpreter, can also be overcome. In fact, the Annals of Family Medicine article that acknowledges the high cost of medical interpreters also points out that because providing a qualified medical interpreter is federal law, government subsidies and assistance are available to help healthcare providers offer this service to patients. Additionally, Medicare, Medicaid, and The Children’s Health Insurance Program may also cover medical interpreter costs.
It’s fortunate, to say the least, that these barriers to using a qualified medical interpreter can be overcome. Medical interpreters facilitate communication for millions of US patients - and have helped improve or even saved the lives of many of them.
Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg