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How Medical Interpreters Can Help During a Health Crisis

When the doctor brought a patient to the coronavirus unit in the overcrowded Brooklyn emergency room, he warned them, “she speaks Hungarian.” A medical resident who treated her said that he could tell no one wanted to take down her medical history with the help of an interpreter.

The patient died the following night. The resident believes she would have gotten better care if she spoke English.

While the pandemic has posed a unique problem concerning language barriers in healthcare, this problem has existed for a long time now. There are various touchpoints in the healthcare system wherein a patient interacts with a healthcare professional – doctor, medical resident, nurse, or lab assistant. As you see in the above situation, lack of access to information due to language barriers between the patient and these professionals can have terrible consequences.

In this article, we discuss the various reasons for medical institutions to utilise medical interpretation services during a worldwide health emergency.

medical interpretation pandemic benefits

1. Efficient communication

In one instance where a pregnant woman’s sister-in-law was allowed to interpret for her, she never told the mother-to-be that her fetus was at risk of heart damage. When she learned about this at the hospital later, she had no time to prepare for the fact that her baby wouldn’t make it.

Now, imagine a similar situation during a worldwide health crisis. During a crisis, it’s natural for medical residents and doctors to focus on diagnosing and treating the increasing number of incoming patients. With limited resources, time and heightened levels of stress, panic and anxiety, they may overlook the need for interpretation.

medical interpretation cartoon


Efficient communication is essential for doctors to diagnose and treat patients correctly in a crisis. Not being able to understand what their doctor is saying can put patients under stress. Plus, it can lead to frequent visits to the doctor, increased expenses, and more extended stays in the hospitals. A professional medical interpreter has skills and knowledge related to both – healthcare delivery and the patient’s native language. They can fill the communication gap between the doctor and the patient, thereby ensuring a speedy and quality health treatment.

2. Unbiased communication

While getting the patient’s relative or a bilingual colleague to interpret may seem the quickest and easiest way to communicate with the patient, medical interpreters have the advantage of being unbiased. The interpreter is an unbiased third-person who performs the duty of communicating correct information to the patient and the doctor. 

During a health emergency, a patient or his/her close relatives are required to make some critical decisions that can potentially affect their health and future. So, any kind of emotional or professional bias will just end up confusing or misleading the patient and the doctor. If it’s a complicated diagnosis or treatment, it becomes especially important that a medical interpreter clearly explains the medical procedure and its consequences to the patient.

3. Mitigates risk

To take care of themselves and make the best decisions, patients must be provided with accurate information that they can access. No access to information can lead to dire results. In one such instance, a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl was rushed to the hospital with what seemed like stomach flu. Instead of getting the on-staff interpreters, the hospital staff communicated with the girl and her elder brother in English and sent them home with written instructions (also in English).

As it turns out, the medicine that the doctor had prescribed to the girl wasn’t usually prescribed for children. The girl suffered a heart attack and died. The physician and hospital settled the malpractice claim for $200,000.

medical language access malpractice claims


During a crisis, there is much more panic and anxiety. The chances of an error in communication are incredibly high. Such errors can lead to incorrect diagnoses, inability to follow the treatment procedures, and insufficient informed consent. Consequently, doctors, hospitals, and clinics end up facing lawsuits. Had the hospital staff had got the interpreter to communicate with the girl’s family, they would’ve avoided the error that cost her life.

4. Patient satisfaction

With the help of a medical interpreter, the patients are able to comprehend their diagnosis, treatments plans, post-treatment instructions, etc. It also builds trust between the doctors and the patient. This is very important as the satisfaction scores for those patients who don’t speak official languages is usually lower than their counterparts.

The Commonwealth Fund 2001 Health Care Quality Survey found that one-third (33%) of Spanish-speaking Hispanics rely on community or public clinics for their health care due to the lack of proper communication with doctors and medical residents at hospitals.

medical interpretation communication issues


Medical interpretation becomes even more necessary while providing medical aid to illiterate patients who cannot read translated documents in their native languages. Words of Relief, a translation crisis relief network that aided communication during the Ebola outbreak employed translated information in audio and video to spread awareness among the affected regions. As the literacy rates in these regions were below 48%, having a medical interpreter talking to them could have provided great relief to the people.

The Scope of Medical Interpretation

If you take America’s example, 24 million Americans do not speak enough English to communicate effectively with their healthcare provider. Without interpretation, these Americans will never be able to access quality healthcare. However, quality healthcare isn’t just limited to hospitals.

The scope of medical interpretation goes beyond hospitals. Interpreters work are required at various medical institutions:


Medical interpreters help patients and doctors in different ways. They can be hired by the hospitals to be on their staff for in-person interpretations, or they can interpret via video conferencing (video interpretation) or phone (phone interpretation).


A worldwide health crisis results in mass panic and anxiety for both – the healthcare professionals and their patients. This critical situation requires the exchange of accurate information and guidance that can help both parties navigate the situation easily. Being native speakers and having a good understanding of the patient’s cultural background, medical interpreters help patients make essential healthcare decisions – thereby helping the world fight the crisis. 

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