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5 Ways to Effectively Use an Interpreter

by Malina Lorring


As physical therapy students, we were evaluated on how well we interacted with patients of a different culture than our own. We were required to demonstrate understanding, empathy, and kindness to everyone we treated, no matter their language, race, or cultural background.

In physical therapy school, I remember having a class on using an interpreter. Our professor popped in a movie from what seemed like the 1980s and we all giggled (like the young, mature professionals we were) at the corny acting and fabulous hair-dos. From what I remember, the film provided some good tips on how to interact with an interpreter during a treatment session.

However, like anything you learn in school, it didn’t hit home until actually experiencing it in the real world.

For the past year, I’ve been practicing physical therapy in Beijing, China where approximately 90% of my treatment sessions have required an interpreter. My American colleagues and I were very fortunate to be paired with Ph.D. and Master's students who were working towards going into the rehab profession themselves. They were familiar with a great deal of the medical terminology and practices that we use as PTs, but they were not professionally trained interpreters.

As a new grad, I had never used an interpreter to the extent that I was now required to do. This led to a challenging first couple of months as both therapist and interpreter learned how to provide the best care for the patient.

After this year-long experience, I like to think that I am a bit wiser in this regard. Here are a few of the essential things I’ve discovered…

5 keys to utilizing an interpreter:

1. Keep your focus on the patient.

It can be tempting to talk directly to your interpreter throughout the session, especially if the patient starts to do it too. But it is important to keep your focus on your patient.

By watching them speak and move, you can pick up on valuable information, such as their body language and facial expressions. Keeping your focus on them will also help you develop rapport. Making eye contact, nodding when you feel it is appropriate, and matching your body language to theirs lets the patient know that you “hear them.”

2. Speak slowly and keep it short.

Often the interpreters we are using are not professionally trained. They are family members, co-workers, or volunteers. Therefore speaking too quickly may increase the risk of miscommunication. It can be challenging to change the pace at which you normally talk, but speaking fast will not speed up the process in the long run.

And no monologuing! Keep in mind that your interpreter has to remember everything you say and then interpret all those facts into a different language. When you provide a long, information-dense explanation, you once again increase the risk of poor communication.

3. Use patient-friendly language.

Your interpreter might not be trained in the medical field, so PT jargon may be difficult for them to understand. Even if they are trained in the medical field, do not rely on your interpreter to take your words and make them patient-friendly. They have a hard enough job as is! Make it easy for them and speak to them as if you are speaking directly to the patient. Because in a sense, you should be!

4. Utilize your interpreter to the fullest.

An interpreter tends to get a better sense of the tone of voice a person is using and the particular words they choose to describe their story. If possible, ask your interpreter what THEIR thoughts are on how the patient is behaving. Sometimes they can pick up on things like anxiety or distress, which you weren’t able to gather just from watching your patient. Some extra insight from your interpreter in this regard can completely change how you manage that person.

5. Be patient!

In a perfect world, the whole session will go flawlessly without you needing to repeat yourself or stop to explain things more fully. But miscommunications happen, which is why it is important to go slow and make sure the patient (and interpreter) comprehend why you’re doing what you’re doing. If your interpreter looks a little confused with something you say, stop and ask them if they understand. You don’t want them telling the patient something incorrectly because you didn’t explain it fully.

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