The Medical Interpreter's Most Important Person


If you are a medical interpreter, you know that you work with a lot of different people in the course of any given assignment. These people fill any number of different roles - medical team members, family members, the patient. 

Now, consider this question: Who has the most important role in your interpreting assignment?

This is, of course, a trick question. 

But to illustrate the point, think for a moment what it would be like to remove any single role from the medical encounter – physician, nurse, technologist, patient services representative, environmental services, information technology, hospital administration, spiritual services. . . You get the idea. 

All of the roles have different layers of complexity, require different levels of professional training and demand different degrees of patient contact. But every role is indispensible. Every role is responsible for the outcomes insofar as their area of expertise is concerned. No one is off the hook or insignificant.

Getting back to the original question, it just might be that the most important role in your interpreting assignment isn’t even in your interpreting assignment. What? Well, sure. How did you “get” the assignment in the first place? What about the individuals in the organization’s business department? Someone at the hospital is responsible for paying the electric bill to keep the lights on. 

I stress these points because, as healthcare interpreters, we are often – not always, but often enough – on the receiving end of the “you’re insignificant, your work is nice but not critical” stick.

This is communicated to interpreters in any number of ways, including budget allowances (or lack thereof) and direct comments from other medical professionals like, “Your job is so easy. All you have to do is talk. I wish I had your job (implied) because then I wouldn’t have to work so hard. My son is learning [insert language] from the neighbor boy – he could do your job!” (News flash: Medical interpreters aren’t the only people on the hospital campus who hear these types of comments about their role.)

The temptation is to come back swinging or dish about all the negative aspects of your job to gain sympathy from others.

There is an alternative approach to combating the misconceptions about the value and importance of the work of medical interpreters.  

Medical interpreters can, instead, make an effort to recognize the valuable contributions that everyone makes as a step toward creating an environment where the professional and technical skills of all people involved are valued and appreciated because of the impact they have on the mission and purpose of the institution as well as the outcomes of the specific encounter.

It’s worth noting that while everyone is important, not everyone can simultaneously be the top priority. That’s a different topic for a different day.

In the meantime, let’s put Mahatma Gandhi’s advice into practice and “be the change you want to see in the world.”

Want to be recognized as a valued member of the healthcare team? Want to be acknowledged for the unique skills and talents that you bring to the encounter?  Start by recognizing and acknowledging the contributions of others. You don’t have to wear a T-shirt with “I value your contributions!” screen printed on the front and back to communicate this (although, now that I think about it. . .).

You can do this by 

  • acknowledging people on the medical team when they have done an exceptional job
  • making an effort to express gratitude to others for the work they do every day
  • reporting others to their supervisor for a job well done

What are you doing to acknowledge the contributions of others? How are you elevating the role of the interpreter through your interactions with others?

Want to develop ways to strengthen your professional relationships through intentional customer service practices? Join us for the online continuing education course How May I Help You? especially designed for medical interpreters, and start expanding the positive impact you have on others

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