Exploring Boundaries Between Interpreters and Medical Team Members


I live in a small community. This means that the likelihood that I’ll encounter a Spanish-speaking family for whom I’ve interpreted is pretty high. So, it is no surprise when I have close encounters with these individuals when I’m going about my daily life.

As it turns out, this also means that I’m likely to encounter members of the medical team as well. We play soccer together; participate in the same faith community, frequent the same eatery, and the list goes on.  The dynamics of these social encounters have not interfered with any aspect of professional performance. In fact, in some ways, they have built up the level of trust and collegiality. Seeing other people as ordinary human beings tends to do that.

All the same, I’ve heard professional interpreters state that interpreters should not socialize or otherwise interact directly with members of the provider team outside the interpreted encounter. These are some of the reasons shared:

  • It prevents the interpreter from adhering to ethical behaviors in the interpreted encounter.
  • It leads to interpreters granting favors or favoritism to the providers.
  • It results in interpreters bending or breaking professional expectations for fear of damaging the friendship or personal relationship.
  • It causes interpreters to have clouded judgment, especially where role boundaries and impartiality are concerned.
  • It causes medical providers to assert undue influence over the interpreter’s scope of practice, stretching it beyond the appropriate limits, for example.
  • It causes the providers to show favoritism towards certain interpreters and to the exclusion of others.

These are all reasonable concerns. However, the interpreter-to-patient relationship is a professional-to-nonprofessional relationship. Conversely, the interpreter-to-provider relationship is a professional-to-professional relationship. As such, there are shared understandings of boundaries, scope of practice, and professionalism that are inherent to the interpreter-to-provider relationship.  This makes it more feasible to keep clear the boundaries between the dynamics of a working relationship versus the dynamics of a personal or social relationship.

Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that professionals will always act as professionals and respect each other’s professional role. In fact, the aforementioned list of concerns might serve as a good checklist to assess if the personal relationship is impinging upon the professional practice of either professional. As a general rule of thumb, however, professionals are clear on where the boundaries are. They are also clear on the value of respecting those boundaries.

Taking a closer look at the values of the boundaries, each value and expectation expressed in the interpreter’s code of ethics and standards of practice are rooted essentially in one thing: ensuring that interpreters facilitate communication without passion or prejudice between autonomous individuals who otherwise would have spoken directly to each other. If a personal or social relationship between the interpreter and the medical team members prevents the interpreter from adhering to this objective, then there is a problem.

Ultimately, the interpreter’s professional ethical expectations apply to everyone in every encounter. Keep that in mind when discerning the types of relationships you have with members of the medical team outside the professional encounter.

Interpreters, what successes or challenges have you encountered with regard to ensuring professional relationships remain intact even though you know the medical team member on a social or personal level? Please share your stories in the comment section below.

Posted on March 15, 2017 and filed under Interpreter, Manager, Medical Team.