5 Tips for Using a Telephone Interpreter in a Healthcare Setting

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Your health is a serious topic – it’s not something you want to take lightly, or that you want others to make light of, especially in a healthcare setting. That’s why it’s so important to have a professional telephone interpreter on call if you find yourself in a healthcare setting where you don’t speak the healthcare provider’s native tongue.

How did you find yourself in this situation? Maybe you’ve moved or traveled abroad and aren’t confident enough to handle the situation in the language(s) you can speak. Or maybe you’ve had to come to the aid of someone dear to you while they were abroad. Or maybe you are the healthcare provider and some of your patients are struggling with the language barrier.

No matter your circumstance, it’s clearly in your favor to have a professional telephone interpreter on standby to help you understand what is being discussed in a healthcare setting. Here are five great tips to help you make the time with your professional telephone interpreter as effective and meaningful as possible.


First, it’s a good idea to make introductions. Let the interpreter begin and explain how they are there to help make the communication as fluid as possible between patient and healthcare provider. If you are the patient, state your problem/concerns. If you are the healthcare provider, state who you are, what you do, and what you are looking for.

Provide Context to the Interpreter

Briefly describe for the interpreter the purpose of the call. This helps the interpreter to find the right vocabulary and tone to set in their interpretations that are appropriate to the circumstances. A routine check up, for example, would have a much different tone than a serious or life-threatening situation.

Don’t Speak to the Interpreter

That’s right, don’t speak directly to the interpreter if you don’t have to. Speak as if the interpreter wasn’t there at all. Make eye contact with the party in front of you and speak as if there wasn’t a language barrier to begin with. This allows the interpreter to bring a natural flow and rhythm to their interpretations, as well as ensure accuracy in the interpretation, and creates an ambience of professionalism and comfort. If you need to talk to the interpreter directly, make sure you address them so they know that you are now speaking with them.

Speak Formally and Slowly

You want to speak formally and avoid colloquialisms and slang because these don’t always translate well. It’s best to be as clear and concise as possible without using flowery or informal language. Also, speak slowly so that the interpreter has time to accurately do their job and so that the other party has time to absorb what you are saying.

Use Direct Language

You don’t want to “beat around the bush”, “mince words” or euphemize what it is you’re trying to say. In other words, be as clear and concise as possible. You don’t want people second-guessing what it is you’re trying to say, especially in a healthcare setting.

For example, don’t say something like, “Well, I guess maybe it all began when at my cousin’s girlfriend’s party I wasn’t looking and I slipped and fell it was so funny but it still really hurts.” This sentence is too long and too indirect. It doesn’t translate well nor does it lend itself to easy interpretation.

Instead, say something like, “Last week I slipped and fell and the injury has only gotten worse.” This is clear, concise and easy to interpret.

These five tips are easy to implement and will certainly maximize your time with a professional telephone interpreter in a healthcare setting. Good luck!

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