For many years, I have been describing the role of the healthcare interpreter as a conduit for communication. The mental image that this creates, is one of a machine. A telephone for instance is impersonal. It truly is a conduit of communication.
Human beings, however, are far more complex than a simple telephone. To simply view or categorize an interpreter as a conduit of communication would be a mistake. This perspective is limiting and fails to acknowledge that professional interpreters often possess insight and can perceive vital information that the healthcare professional might miss.
The goal in the medical setting is for the interpreter to serve as a communication bridge. You want communication to flow as closely and accurately as possible, as if people were speaking to each other in the same language. Obviously, the patient wants to make sure the doctor understands everything he is saying. Likewise, the medical professional wants his message transmitted exactly as he intends it to be said.
Why teach that interpreters are conduits?
As is the case for most professionals, interpreters must also follow a code of ethics. Within that code of ethics, the interpreter is to be unbiased and maintain transparency. Experience has shown that staying unbiased, can be a real challenge for interpreters in a medical setting. When life and death is at stake, emotions can run high. It is natural for an interpreter to empathize with a patient who is suffering grief.
When an interpreter takes on the role of the patient and speaks as if he is the patient, it is common for them to suffer what is known as vicarious trauma. The emotional patient begins to describe his pain and suffering. He describes his terrible traumatic experience and the interpreter is relating all of this as if he is the one that went through that horrible experience. Often this exercise can cause the interpreter to empathize so greatly with the patient that he himself suffers emotional trauma.
Often when patients are emotional and frustrated, they begin to believe that perhaps they are not getting the best medical treatment. Health care interpreters are not exempt from having their own personal opinions about the quality of care that they might be observing. In highly charged emotional situations, some interpreters had sided with the patient in their defense. Medical interpreters are not professionals and are not qualified to make such judgments. However, it is easy to fall into this trap when emotions are extremely high.
To help interpreters maintain their professionalism and stay unbiased, interpreters are typically encouraged to limit personal time with their patient. Avoid unnecessary chatting. Erect an invisible wall and maintain a business only relationship. Basically, the idea is to turn the interpreter into a machine with no emotions.
By categorizing the role of the interpreter as simply a conduit of information the issue of the interpreter staying unbiased is addressed. However, there are other issues to address if a patient is to receive quality care. The next blog will take a closer look at the role of the professional healthcare interpreter.