With over 60 million people in the United States speaking a language other than English as their primary language, odds are you are encountering more and more LEP (Limited English Proficiency) patients every day. Because a patient’s well-being is on the line, healthcare providers need to assist them as quickly and effectively as possible. In some situations, video or over-the-phone interpreting is not the best solution. In those instances, you may be tempted to call upon any bilingual speaking staff member which is never recommended do to their lack of knowledge of the interpreting profession. They are also more likely to add or omit words/phrases which could severely impact the effectiveness of the appointment.
That's not to say that you can't take advantage of your bilingual staff members. For this to be a viable option, the staff member should go through the proper channels to ensure language competency and that certain standards are being met. Following are the five main differences between bilingual employees and professional interpreters:
1. Different Roles and Environments
Being fluent in multiple languages is not only a wonderful skill, but it also offers a unique understanding of a different culture, which has become an increasingly valuable asset in today’s multicultural society. But it is too often assumed that being bilingual automatically provides the skills to interpret. The reality is that professional interpreters have distinct skills that bilingual employees often don’t. Since interpreting is a career, interpreters have experience and training related to the language and environment they work in. This generally leads to higher levels of professionalism and a complete mastery of both languages. The interpreter will also demonstrate a high degree of cultural understanding, which is arguably just as important as the language syntax itself.
The expertise the interpreter specializes in is a critical variable as well. A legal interpreter will generally stay within that industry and rarely work in, say, a healthcare environment, as it would require a completely separate knowledge base. This allows the interpreter to be confident in their respective industry’s terminology and any possible nuances that a bilingual employee might miss. Also, depending on the interpreting employee’s position within the organization, he/she may lack the experience that includes medical terminology in the target language. Even if the bilingual employee is competent in the target language, one unknown medical term can render a conversation completely inaccurate at the cost of the patient’s well-being. As you can see, there are 3 distinct areas where a miscommunication can negatively impact healthcare quality and patient satisfaction.
2. Relationship with the patient
While staff is generally encouraged to be friendly with the patient, this can sometimes have unintended adverse effects on overall communication. Making the patient feel comfortable and becoming acquainted with the patient while caring for them usually comes natural. But it’s vital for the interpreter to keep the interaction professional and stay away from private conversations. The interpreter’s sole purpose is to interpret everything that is being communicated, word for word, without adding or subtracting anything. When interpreters are perceived as exceedingly friendly, people may think that they are overtly influencing the flow of conversation or paraphrasing the answer to a question. This is highly unprofessional and should be avoided at all costs. In addition, interpreters should never be alone with a patient in order to avoid accidentally influencing the conversation or any perceived bias.
When communicating in different languages, it’s easy to see all the different ways a phrase can be conveyed. A professional interpreter does not take any freedoms when it comes to wording, because the job is to convey information to the patient exactly as it was said, word for word. Even though some language differences may seem like small nuances, different cultures can have vastly different interpretations of many seemingly simple words. Not only do the words and context need to be taken into consideration, but the tone and register need to be understood as well.
4. Memory and Retention
Some key skills that an interpreter constantly works on refining are memory, retention, and concentration. Interpreters must absorb and retain a lot of information in a short period of time, all while choosing the most accurate way to convey the information. Conversations don’t always go at a slow and relaxed pace, especially within the healthcare setting. An interpreter might find him/herself in an urgent situation where the rate of speech requires the interpreter to go into “overdrive” mode. Interpreters familiar with these high-risk situation have the skills necessary to keep up in demanding and fast-paced circumstances. While these scenarios are not the norm in medical environments, someone who is simply bilingual will struggle to keep up and may accidentally omit crucial details. It is absolutely essential for an interpreter to convey every single detail in the original tone and register. Effective interpreters will employ a variety of methods to continually enhance their memory, retention, and focus techniques.
Interpreting, like any other profession, comes with its own set of best practices, knowledge bases and code of conduct. A bilingual individual who is unfamiliar with interpreter principles is more likely to make certain mistakes, such as asking patients their own questions and answering questions on their own instead of interpreting them for the healthcare provider. Or they may break the most basic rule of interpreting, speaking in the first person. An interpreter’s job is solely to relay the messages between the patient and healthcare provider while making sure not to add or omit anything while maintaining the flow of the conversation. The interpreter can be viewed as an information relay station, one that should never become the source of the information. In addition, all trained interpreters adhere to national standards of practice as well as a nationally-recognized and practiced code of ethics. The average bilingual individual generally has no knowledge of any of these industry rules and standards.
6. Accuracy and Thoroughness
Interpreters take many steps to ensure the accuracy of the dialogue. Before a session begins, the interpreter will introduce him/herself to the patient as the person that will help them communicate with the healthcare provider. Increasing the patient’s comfort level helps create an environment in which the patient is comfortable enough to ask questions and raise any concerns to the healthcare provider. After this initial comfort level is established, the interpreter becomes a neutral participant in the conversation, interpreting information word for word and acting as a communication node. To ensure accuracy, the interpreter will stick to standardized forms of the language while avoiding dialects and informal tones. Healthcare providers can also assist with accuracy by avoiding analogies or idioms. Finally, the interpreter will make sure that the patient is leading the discussion and controlling the flow of conversation at all times.
Repairing the Disconnect
While it may be useful in some situations to employ a bilingual staff member, they should never be a first choice over a professional medical interpreter. Training and certifying your bilingual staff is a great way to improve patient care, decrease hospital costs, and have a quality back-up option when no other language solutions are available. However, it should be noted that while trained interpreters and bilingual employees have different skill sets, bilingual employees have the capacity to become trained medical interpreters or simply provide care in the target language.
These six distinctions highlight the stark difference between bilingual staff members and professional interpreters. Each of these roles has its own strengths and weaknesses, and should be recognized as a unique and valuable part of the medical environment. While being bilingual can suffice in certain situations, that’s not always the case. Training bilingual staff members creates value within your organization because it uses existing resources that will, in turn, increase quality of care and reduce patient readmission rates.
If you want to learn more about medical interpreters, be sure to download our free guide below!
Last Updated December-12-2016