Using an Interpreter

Article Categories: Other & Patient Care

No doubt, you’ve had situations with patients who have Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and require an interpreter. Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Law of 1964 prohibits hospitals, physicians, and other healthcare providers that receive Federal assistance, such as Medicare and Medicaid, from discriminating against patients who do not speak English. This means that if a physician’s practice regularly serves patients who speak a certain language, a level of interpreter assistance is required.

Qualified medical interpreters are essential to gather accurate information and provide complete care. They put the patient and the medical staff at ease, and improve the experience for everyone. In their article, authors Dionne Hart, M.D. states, “Competent interpreters are objective parties who take into account cultural terms, concepts, and expressions in order to convey information accurately to both the patient and the provider.”

When you work with an interpreter, here are some tips that will make the meeting or appointment go smoothly:


1. Speak directly to the patient, not to the interpreter. Face the patient and use good eye contact.
2. Stick to the questions or discussion. Don’t “think out loud” or talk to the interpreter about other topics. It makes the patient wonder what the interpreter is NOT saying or asking.

Before the Meeting:

1. Meet with the interpreter to provide background for the meeting.
2. Determine where the interpreter will sit and how the meeting will start.

During the Meeting:

1. Speak at a comfortable pace, using natural voice inflection. This allows the patient to understand the tone of your voice and allows adequate time for interpretation.
2. Keep questions simple, avoiding complicated medical jargon.
3. Listen carefully to the interpreter’s response to make sure the question was understood by the patient.
4. Provide full information on tests, diagnosis, and treatment.
5. Answer any questions and confirm that the patient understands what needs to be done.
6. Pay attention to the patient’s body language during the meeting.
7. Check with the interpreter any time you need to be certain that the terminology or interpretation is accurate.

After the Meeting:

1. Debrief with the interpreter to make sure he or she feels the meeting went well.
2. Ask the interpreter about possible cultural or other factors that could be important.


1. Document the name of the interpreter.
2. List the topics covered during the meeting.

Except for rare or emergency circumstances, DO NOT:

1. Allow the patient to bring his or her own interpreter.
2. Ask the patient’s friend or family member to interpret. NEVER ask a child to interpret.
3. Use unqualified medical interpreters.
4. Request that another patient assist with interpretation.

Research has shown that using medical interpreters improves clinical outcomes. Using a medical interpreter can seem awkward at first, but with practice, healthcare professionals will find it to be a satisfying and accurate way to communicate.

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