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Why Family Members Shouldn't Play the Role of Interpreter

Woman showing man something on the phone.

Family members often accompany patients to medical appointments to offer emotional support. However, for patients with limited-English proficiency (LEP), family members often double as interpreters.

Many medical professionals also rely on family members to play the role of interpreter. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 40% of healthcare providers ask family members to interpret, especially in private practice. 

While seemingly convenient, this approach can be a risky option. Keep reading to learn three reasons family members shouldn't act as a stand-in for professional interpreting services. 

1. No Impartiality

Family members often have close ties with the patients, which can bring emotional bias to the medical setting. Their concern, worry, or fear may affect how they interpret things, both to the medical professional and the patient. 

They may also struggle with various "spillover" effects from their loved one's illness. A 2013 publication in The Patient explains that spillover effects can adversely impact family members' quality of life, emotional well-being, and even physical health. 

All these factors affect how a family member views the patient's well-being. They may end up talking for the patient instead of interpreting what they say. 

For example, a family member might share more than what a patient says, divulging every detail they deem important. They can also add to what the medical professionals say, inserting their own opinions and views into the interpretation. 

Another scenario to consider is when the family member acts more as a caregiver than an interpreter. Instead of simply being a communication bridge, they may dominate the conversation by sharing minimal details with the patient and planning the entire treatment plan themselves.

These scenarios likely stem from good intentions. However, this subconscious bias can cause family members to construe data and even present faulty information. 

Professional interpreters solve this issue by acting as a neutral third party. In fact, the National Code of Ethics for Interpreters in Healthcare stipulates that interpreters must remain impartial and avoid personal involvement. This helps the interpretation remain as authentic as possible.

2. No Professional Training

Aside from not being familiar with the code of ethics for interpreters, family members typically don't have professional training. And simply being bilingual is not the same as being a medically qualified interpreter

Bilingual family members have the gift of speaking two languages, but they typically don't have to use them simultaneously. Interpreting requires individuals to perceive things in one language while simultaneously producing the same information in another language. This skill requires the brain to work at a much higher level than regular language processing and even bilingualism. 

As such, it can be overwhelming for bilingual family members to suddenly take on the role of interpreting. They may be able to communicate the main ideas, but quickly and accurately interpreting requires training and years of experience. 

That's where professional interpreters come in. They already have the necessary experience and training to provide the most accurate translation possible. Interpreters also take some pressure off the family members, allowing them to simply support their loved ones and not worry about whether they understand everything.

3. Limited Medical Background

In many situations, family members have grown accustomed to interpreting for their loved ones — whether at restaurants, stores, or banks. However, language services in healthcare are vastly different from interpretation in more general settings. 

Healthcare professionals discuss complex ideas and use medical terminology people don't regularly use. Bilingual family members often don't have a medical background, meaning they likely aren't familiar with healthcare vocabulary. And even if they understand the terms in one language, they might struggle to find the right words to express those ideas in another language. 

With limited medical vocabulary, family members might end up summarizing or even skipping crucial information when interpreting. They may also misinterpret some words. 

Languages have numerous false cognates or words that look and sound the same but mean completely different things. For example, the word "influenza" looks and sounds like "influencia" in Spanish. However, "influencia" means "influence." The correct translation for "influenza" would be "gripe" in Spanish. 

It's incredibly easy to confuse these false cognates — even for bilingual individuals. Unfortunately, simple mistakes like these in a healthcare setting can lead to misdiagnoses, unneeded procedures, and incorrect treatments. 

2010 study found that medically qualified interpreters were 70% less likely to make critical errors like these, thanks to their in-depth understanding of medical terminology and professional experience. 

Trust the Experts for Language Services

The family members of patients have enough to manage without the added responsibility of interpreting. There's no need for them to play the role of an interpreter when you can reap the benefits of language services. 

With GLOBO, you get on-demand access to medically qualified interpreters who provide accurate and impartial translations. Schedule a demo today to see how it works. 

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