7 tips for communicating through an interpreter

Even if an interpreter is present, there are many things a healthcare provider can do to create a connection and improve the patient experience. Here are our best tips.

Even if an interpreter is present, there are many things a healthcare provider can do to promote communication when there is no common language. Here are seven tips that will help you create a connection with the patient and improve their experience. 

  1. Speak to the patient, not the interpreter
    It is not always easy to know whether to look at the patient or the interpreter during a conversation. To better create a connection with the patient, your focus should be on them. Keep eye contact, just like you would with a patient that is speaking the same language as you.  Professional interpreters don’t expect that attention. They are  there to help the patient communicate with you, not to speak on their behalf. 
  2. Use short sentences
    Speaking in short sentences makes it easier for the interpreter to digest the sentence and translate it in an accurate way. In a similar way, it is best to only ask one question at a time. 

  1. Avoid complicated terminology
    Do not use jargon, acronyms, technical terms, cultural references, or humor. Sometimes that can happen anyway, and if it does, make sure to explain it to the interpreter. The interpreter should not have to be the one providing the explanations, since it can lead to misunderstandings.
  2. Stick to the conversation with the patient
    The patient may have some knowledge of the language, so don’t make any comments, remarks, or speak of things you don't want the patient to understand outside of the conversation. Avoid asking for the interpreter's opinion, having side conversations, or including interpreters in the conversation in some way.

  1. Explain any side conversations
    Sometimes the interpreter might need you to clarify a point. In that case, let the interpreter explain to the patient what is happening so that they know what is going on or don't feel excluded from the conversation.
    In a similar way, if there is no direct translation the interpreter might need to explain for example a concept to the patient. This might take some extra time, but the interpreter should keep you informed of all the steps in the conversation.
  2. Be mindful of the positioning
    Ideally, sit so you are facing the patient directly.  If there is a physical interpreter, seat them slightly behind or next to the patient. This arrangement tends to promote direct communication between the patient and the provider.
  3. Use the teach-back method
    The teach-back method is a way to make sure that the patient has understood you correctly. For example by asking the patient to use their own words to describe what they know or what they need to do.