Updated: Nov 24, 2021
Until recently, if a patient in the US didn’t speak English and didn’t have access to on-site interpreters at a healthcare facility, there wasn’t a simple, standard solution.
Fortunately, nowadays, technological advances, combined with a dramatically increased need for remote communications during the COVID-19 pandemic mean that healthcare providers and patients can easily access a medical interpreter via phone or video.
What a time to be alive!
….But as a new article in The Nation reveals, remote interpreting is far from perfect.
One issue with phone interpreting, for instance, is that some people, including elderly patients suffering from issues like dementia, may have a hard time understanding where the interpreter’s voice is coming from if they can’t see them.
Another problem is that when an interpreter works via phone, they can’t see the body language and other nuances of the people they’re interpreting for. Details like gestures and facial expressions give important nuance to words. Without them, the significance of certain statements may be lost.
It might seem, then, that an easy solution is to use video or on-site interpreting as much as possible. But one major issue would still remain.
In most healthcare practices, doctors are encouraged to conduct consultations as quickly as possible. They might not take the time to make small talk. This is even more likely when small talk involves waiting for an interpreter to translate back and forth. But small talk is a way for doctors and patients to connect.
The lack of connection can result in more than an unpleasant consultation. It can motivate patients not to follow medical advice or continue treatment. A 2015 study also found that when doctors don’t seem to empathize with or believe a patient, the latter’s symptoms can worsen due to increased stress and anger.
It seems that requiring a third party for even the smallest exchange of words only exacerbates this issue. But maybe it could be an advantage.
Zoya Qureshi, author of the article in The Nation, suggests that healthcare providers use interpreters to do more than communicate about a patient’s health and treatment. Interpreters can also facilitate conversations about patients’ lives and families. As with same-language small-talk, this would give the doctor insight into the patient in front of them, and help the patient understand that the doctor does care about them.
It’s a point that Qureshi illustrates well in her article. She opens the piece by describing how a Spanish-speaking woman named Adriana and her son Pablo sit uncomfortably through a consultation with a clinician they don’t know, who has to use a phone interpreter to communicate with them. But at the end of the session, their usual doctor, who speaks fluent Spanish, comes into the room and both are visibly relieved and more at ease. Pablo is downright joyful.
This isn’t because the doctor necessarily has good news, or even that it’s simply easier to communicate in one’s native language. Instead, the doctor comments about how big Pablo is getting and asks Adriana how she’s doing. The two react warmly to the doctor’s care, concern, and recognition of them.
It shows that what’s most important goes beyond language. If a healthcare provider could start a session with simple exchanges like this through an interpreter, it could go a long way towards improving their relationship with a patient - and improving their patient’s health.
Contact Our Writer – Alysa Salzberg