Best Practices: Using a Translator at Medical Appointments

Best Practices: Using a Translator at Medical Appointments

Moxie Scrubs
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Best Practices: Using a Translator at Medical Appointments

Written by Morganne Skinner, RN, BSN

Picture this:

You arrive at your doctor’s office for a routine visit. 

The medical staff speaks a different language. There is no face-to-face interpreter. Your nurse calls a certified medical interpreter who remains on the phone for the duration of the visit.

Health insurance coverage allows for a 20-minute visit, regardless of translation services. 

It’s time to see the doctor. Every piece of communication is repeated twice. Without enough time to ask your many questions before the visit is over, you leave confused.

Your English-speaking partner is also there for a 20-minute visit. 

Your partner receives more quality time with their doctor, simply by speaking the same language. 

They leave feeling confident about the next steps in their care. 

Here's how you, as a nurse advocate, can provide a supportive, effective appointment for your patients in this common scenario.

One Solution: Extended Visit Times

As nurses, we know that successful care relies on providing healthcare in a language our patients understand. But, what do we do when translation results in less quality patient-doctor time? 

Translation takes more time. So, the same insurance coverage gives half the qualitative time to a patient requiring a translator that it gives to a patient who speaks the same language as the doctor. Less time with the doctor equates to less time to properly assess the patient, gather history, ask questions, and provide education. 

Nurses can advocate for extended visit times for patients who need translation services. With or without an extended visit, the following tips will help you support your patients.

Best Practices: Optimize Time with a Medical Translator

1. Preparation is key: Prepare by relaying to the patient interpreter (aka: medical translator) what you will be discussing with the patient ahead of time.

2. Speak slowly: Many registered nurse translators use a notebook to write notes to ensure they remember everything you said. Having lived for two years in a village where no one spoke English, my best piece of advice is to speak slowly. 

3. Take breaks: Deliver small pieces of information at a time. Speak sentence-by-sentence.

4. Choose someone qualified: Use a certified nurse translator familiar with medical terminology

5. Speak to the patient: While it may be tempting to look at the medical interpreter, look at and speak to your patient while you’re talking. 

6. Avoid translating through a family member:  Family members may give inaccurate information. We should take our patient’s wishes into consideration, but they shouldn’t override the necessity for accurate interpretation.

Consider advocating for extended visit times, preparing to work with a translator, and using these tips to optimize your time with a translator to make a positive impact.

About the Author:

Morganne Skinner, RN, BSN is a registered nurse, writer, and fertility awareness educator. She is the owner of the fertility awareness business Fertility Defined. She has 7 years of nursing experience in the surgical-trauma ICU, rehabilitation, communicable disease and maternal child health. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer for two years in rural Zambia, where her passion for public health and women’s health grew. Her speciality writing topics include health literacy, cultural communication, fertility and women’s health. 


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