6 Steps to Creating a Great Workplace for Healthcare Interpreters

Anyone who manages healthcare interpreters knows that they are frequently faced with a number of stressful situations. As these stressors build up overtime, interpreters can become disengaged, disillusioned and burnt out. So what can we do to support professional healthcare interpreters and alleviate these stressors?

Treasure Box for the Healthcare Interpreter’s Senses

Healthcare interpreters’ senses are constantly bombarded with information. Sometimes this information is a cause for joy. Other times this information is a cause for sorrow. As part of an interpreter’s daily self-care practices, it is helpful to incorporate strategies that soothe and renew the senses.

Consistency Is Key When Interpreters Work with Medical Providers

Interpreters frequently express struggles with trying to get healthcare providers to use their services.. Many times the struggles are expressed only from the point of view of the interpreter. Very infrequently, is the perspective of the healthcare provider considered. 

Doctors Don’t Want Surprises from Interpreters

Surprises are fun when they happen in the right context, like “Surprise! You won a new car!” In the wrong context, surprises are not at all fun. When it comes to working with healthcare interpreters, there should be no surprises. Surprises are just plain confusing.

Consider this. . .

If Interpreter D always interprets in the first person and Interpreter E always interprets in the third person, and Interpreter F always switches the voice at random during the interpretation, the medical team will be confused.

If Interpreter A uses always uses simultaneous and Interpreter B always uses consecutive and Interpreter C switches at random during the interpretation, the medical team will be confused.

If Interpreter G never sight translates anything and Interpreter H always sight translates everything, and Interpreter I sometimes sight translates some things, the medical team will be confused.

If I am the medical team and on any given day I work with Interpreter A, Interpreter B, Interpreter C, D, E, F, G, H, and Interpreter I in order to care for my patients, I don’t have the time or the patience for surprises from interpreters.

If, on the other hand, my experience with working with a variety of interpreters representing a variety of language pairs is reasonably consistent, then I can focus my efforts on caring for the patient. That is a relief!

If the thought of working with an interpreter brings a sense of relief, and not a sense of anxiety, the medical team is more likely to move from the high-stress state of I have to call an interpreter, to the more peaceful state of I want to call an interpreter.

Let’s start working toward eliminating the surprises and make it easier (and dare I say pleasant) for the medical team to work with the interpreter. A few ways to get started:

  • Learn the protocols of the medical interpreter.
  • Put those protocols into action on the job.
  • Work to build performance consistency among all the interpreters in your hospital, including staff and contract interpreters.
  • Collaborate with department supervisors to monitor performance for consistency.
  • Look for consistency gaps; identify the cause; implement a solution; evaluate for effectiveness; repeat as needed.

Are there challenges and obstacles to these steps? You better believe it. But if we are serious about building relationships with medical teams, we must get beyond the obstacles. When we deliver interpreter services consistently, it will be a lot easier for medical teams to look favorably on working with interpreters. Until then, working with interpreters is a crapshoot, at least from the experience of the medical team.

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Posted on November 14, 2013 .

Interpreter Self-Care: Being affected by what you do

Prior to becoming a healthcare interpreter, I was informed of the many challenges that healthcare interpreters face in their field — the emotionally charged encounters; the unpleasant sights, sounds and smells; the odd hours and long shifts. I knew of all these and other challenges ahead of time, and, as such, was able to identify and respond to them reasonably well. I also knew that working in the field of healthcare would have an impact on me personally, but I was a little surprised about the self-discoveries I made.

Superpower Wish List for Medical Interpreters

Have you ever wished for a particular superpower to help you better handle interpreting encounters? I know I have. It might seem silly to daydream about having superpowers, but doing so can help to uncover superpower alternatives that are realistic and produce the desired outcome — even if it does take a bit more effort. Here are my top four.

With A Little Help From My Friends

Healthcare interpreters are expected to be life-long learners. Fortunately, we interpreters tend to be a knowledge-hungry people, meaning continuing education turns out to be more of a professional perk than a chore. But if you're working alone, good reference materials may not be enough to keep you "in the know".

Back in my college days (suffice it to say that this was pre-Facebook), I had a professor — a life-long learner himself — who often gave examples of things he had learned from his "friends". He'd then go on to reveal his "friend" to be someone who had lived in the second century, or on the other side of the planet.

As a result of that professor's anecdotes, I widened my definition of "friend" to "anyone who inspires or supports you" — whether or not you've actually met this person.

When it comes to professional development, it's important to be connected to the ideas of others if you want to grow — to cast a wider net for those sources of inspiration and support.

In the Facebook / Skype / LinkedIn / Twitter era, there is no shortage of ways to discover and connect with like-minded individuals or professional groups. It's important, though, to distinguish between the medium (online networks, professional organizations, etc.) and the connections you're trying to make with real human beings. In this case, the networks themselves are just tools for connecting; it's still up to you to make and define those connections on a human-to-human level.

As you build your circle of friends, do consider including people and perspectives that foster development in skills and competencies which are less obvious, but still of general value to professionals — such as leadership, customer service, speaking, communication, or time management.

It can also be helpful to diversify in another direction: those who share your role in other industries.

For instance: individuals involved in the training and development of healthcare interpreters will also benefit from extending their circle of professional friends to include sales trainers, or manufacturing trainers. In my own experience wearing my "trainer hat", this circle of friends has provided valuable insights, resources, and tools — all of which have expanded and reinforced my own professional development as a learning and performance practitioner. And since we share a common interest in learning about learning, we have a base level on which we can naturally interact and exchange useful insights from our very different industries.

Here's a peek at a few of my own learning and performance "friends":

As a healthcare interpreter, who are your professional "friends", and how are they helping you to grow?


It’s a Medical Appointment, Not a Foreign Language Skills Lab

I find myself observing situations in which individuals are eager to “try out” their foreign language skills at medical appointments. Sometimes this means patients fumbling through broken English. Sometimes this means medical staff fumbling through broken Spanish. Often the result is a varying degree of uncertainty on the part of the listener.

Posted on May 30, 2013 and filed under Medical Team.

Blind Adherence to Interpreter Ethics Can Hinder Communication

I love the code of ethics for many reasons. It gives me a welcome framework to guide my work. But taken too literally, ethics can hinder the facilitation of communication if not applied with regard for the situation at hand. Here are a couple examples of how interpreters can hinder communication by blindly adhering to ethical standards.

3 Simple Ways Interpreter Managers Can Invest in Their Team’s Development

Interpreter Managers play a critical role in building a team of interpreters that is engaged and invested in the work they do. Inevitably, some responsibilities, such as supporting the professional development of the interpreters in your department, take a back seat to the many other priorities that require your attention. Here are three simple things you can do to invest in the continued professional development of your team of healthcare interpreters.

Be Identifiable: I’m the interpreter, not a family member

Health care interpreters can benefit by wearing a uniform or other apparel that clearly identifies him or her as the interpreter. It makes the interpreter visible and distinguishes him or her from other individuals in the encounter, like family or members of the nursing team. It is a good first step toward creating awareness of role boundaries and role differentiation. And that's not all. 

Communicating Across Cultures Requires More Than Language

There's more to communicating across cultures than finding a shared language (or interpreter). It is also necessary to develop skills and strategies that allow you to communicate effectively across cultures. Who knew time at a great conference and ordering a glass of water could be so insightful? 

Posted on April 12, 2013 and filed under Medical Team.

I’m an interpreter, not a health care practitioner

When I was new to interpreting, I would often find myself listening to the patient’s symptoms and making determinations (to myself, of course) as to what the diagnosis was. Not surprisingly, my diagnoses were frequently wrong, and so I came to realize that while I might know a lot of medical terms and concepts, I had no business trying to apply that knowledge beyond the accurate conversion of messages between languages.

Posted on March 28, 2013 and filed under Interpreter.

Healthcare Interpreters, Protect Yourselves!

Healthcare interpreting can be hazardous, especially for interpreters who work onsite at hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Interpreters need to be aware of potential health and safety hazards and take the appropriate measures to minimize or eliminate the risks.