Medical Interpreter Safety: Don’t be the Punching Bag

punching bag

Are you a medical interpreter that only interprets for polite, considerate, well-mannered, docile, kind, thoughtful, patient, understanding and cheery people? If you said “yes,” you can stop reading this post now. If you said, “no,” keep reading.

People are not always on their best behavior when visiting the hospital (or clinic or residential healthcare center, etc.). On occasion, the interpreter becomes the target of a person’s poor behavior. When this happens, it is helpful to be prepared with appropriate ways to respond.

Reference the Code of Ethics

Inappropriate behavior can come in many forms. Maybe the patient asked you out on a date. Flattering? Perhaps, but the response has to be “no.” This awkward situation requires tact and clarity. Both can be achieved by politely declining the offer for reasons of ethical boundaries. This does a few things. It allows the patient to save face. It keeps the interpreter from being the bad guy. It sets the expectation that all interpreters respond this way, it’s not personal.

Create Distance

Perhaps you referenced the code of ethics until you were blue in the face*, and still the harassing behavior continued. It’s time to get out of dodge, or at least, create an appropriate amount of distance to stop the behavior. This includes stepping out of the room when no provider is present, but it also includes creating distance in open areas as well, like waiting rooms. If you’re not there, the behavior cannot continue. Pretty effective.

Report Incident to Your Supervisor

Your supervisor should want to know if you’ve been the target of inappropriate behavior. It gives an opportunity to debrief on the incident and identify opportunities to fix or prevent the situation from recurring. Perhaps it would be possible (and preferred) to assign different interpreters to the individual’s appointments. If someone on the medical team has behaved inappropriately toward you (yes, this does happen, sadly), your supervisor will be better positioned to ensure corrective actions are taken. Mostly, you’ll get the support you need to respond effectively to the situation, so it doesn’t keep happening.

It is possible to interpret in a professional way for grumpy, rude, hostile, inconsiderate and ill-mannered people without becoming a punching bag.

What are some of the sticky situations that medical interpreters encounter? 
What is considered inappropriate behavior? 
What changes if I’m a staff interpreter vs. a contracted interpreter? 
What if the inappropriate behavior came from the doctor, not the patient?  
Don’t I just have to grin and bear it?

We don’t think so, which is why we’ve created the course Rolling With the Punches, to help interpreters navigate these icky situations and come out unscathed. 

Have you been the target of inappropriate behavior?  Please share your experience (friendly HIPAA reminder!) and how you responded.

*You shouldn’t be blue in the face. If the first clarification wasn’t effective, use a different strategy. Different situations call for different strategies.

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