Dear Interpreters, Your Medical Team Membership Comes with Rights and Responsibilities


The previous post focused on interpreters as already being members of the medical team. Being a member of the medical team – or any team – comes with some rights and responsibilities. Look at the experience of professional athletes as an example.  A rookie player who joins a team has to prove his or her value to the team. The same is true, though, for veteran players who join a new team. The veteran players have a proven track record, but they still have to demonstrate their value and ability to contribute positively to their new team. In short, the athlete has a right to be on the team and participate fully, but the athlete also has the responsibility contribute skillfully and positively to achieve the collective goals of the team as a whole unit

The same can be said for the medical interpreter as a member of the medical team. The interpreter has a right to be an integrated part of the medical team, but the interpreter also has the responsibility to bring value and contribute effectively to that team and its goals.

I admit that it isn’t easy being the new member on the team. I admit that it’s even harder being the misunderstood or underappreciated member of the team. In spite of these potential barriers, medical interpreters can do a few things to help themselves and their professional colleagues become integrated members of the medical care team.

1. Know the culture of the organization.

I know interpreters are pretty clear on what culture means, but to be sure we’re on the same page regarding organizational culture, take a moment to skim through this definition

What does the culture value? Hierarchy? Open communication? Patient safety? Bottom line? Research? Best practices? Community outreach? Practice improvements? The list goes on.

Find out what the culture of the organization is ahead of time. Visit the organization’s website and social media streams as a starting point to learning about its culture. Sometimes there is a gap between the culture that is marketed and the culture that really exists on campus. Also, keep in mind that there might be a macro-culture that encompasses an entire organization as well as micro-cultures that exist within specific departments within the larger organization.  Whatever the case, the interpreter ought to know both what the desired culture is and what the actual culture is if the interpreter hopes to be an integrated member of the team.

The culture serves as the guideposts for how to interact with others in the organization in order to achieve the desired outcomes. With any luck, the organization’s culture will align well with the interpreter’s professional values and standards of practice. Even if it doesn’t, the interpreter will at least be alert to the discord and be better prepared to navigate situations.

2. Know the policies and protocols of the healthcare organization.

It is not uncommon for organizations to have expectations or protocols for staff or contracted employees to follow regarding a variety of on-campus situations. Is there a particular area where employees are supposed to park? What is the expectation regarding check-in, gel-in, or professional attire? Are there general expectations around staff intervention or response regarding the safety of individuals on the campus (e.g., patient falls, fires, severe weather, violent person, etc.)?

An organization’s policies and protocols might be quite numerous. They might even indicate specific requirements based on the role of the staff member. Depending on your employment relationship with the organization, you might have immediate access to the policies and protocols. Even if you don’t, at the very least be aware that such things do exists, learn the ones that are most relevant to your daily interactions, and rely on the other medical team members to take the lead in navigating uncommon situations. Hopefully, on-campus fires are an example of an uncommon situation. Where to park would be a common situation.

3. Understand the specialty and scope of practice of other team members.

Getting back to the sports analogy, every athlete knows how to perform his or her own role and function on the team, but also knows the role and function of all the other team members, without necessarily knowing how to perform the others’ roles. This is an essential component to being able to integrate successfully with other team members.

By understanding the roles of others, you are better able to know what to expect from others, how to use your skills to the benefit of others, and how to navigate ordinary or extraordinary situations.  In simple terms, knowing this gives you, the interpreter, the information you’ll need when you have to divert, redirect, or dodge a situation that is not within your skill set.

4. Understand the scope of practice of professional healthcare interpreters.

Yes, this one is all about you and your role. It might seem like a no-brainer. Hopefully, it is. Still, this is the cornerstone that must be in place if the interpreter-is-part-of-the-medical-team model has any hope of working.  What is your responsibility to ensuring effective communication among all people? What is your responsibility to demonstrating ethical behavior? What is your responsibility to ensuring that the collective goals are achieved? What are the things that fall outside of your scope of practice and whose scope does it fall within (see #3 above)?

In an ideal world, the other medical team members you interact with will have done extensive research and study to learn about the scope of practice of interpreters. In the real world, interpreters will have to do some trailblazing and real-time instruction to teach others about the role and scope of practice of the interpreters. It’s the reality many interpreters deal with daily. As such, the interpreter must be very, very clear on the interpreter’s own role in order to blaze trails without getting burnt or burning others. 

Be careful to not make the mistake of simply demanding that others accept you as part of the medical team, no questions asked. Don't simply talk up your rights without also acting out your responsibilities. Do your part and pull your weight. Then the following day, do it all over again.

Interpreters, what strategies have you used to become an integrated member of the medical team? Please share your experiences in the comments section.

Posted on June 28, 2016 and filed under Manager, Interpreter, Medical Team.