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About Medical Interpreting

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

Medical interpreting is one significant type of community interpretating. A qualified medical interpreter or health care interpreter requires professional training, high language proficiency, and in-depth knowledge in medical terminology. S/he should also abide by code of ethics.

The Importance of Professional Medical Interpreter

Medical interpreter act as an intermediary between patients, doctors, and/or clinicians in a healthcare setting. Accuracy is essential in medical interpreting and medical translation. Any communication errors can lead to serious negative consequences towards patients' lives and health. The way medical interpreter transmits message has impacts on medical decisions. Therefore, it is not a service that any laymen with bilingual abilities or patients' family could do.

The Need for Professional Medical Interpreters

Untrained family or interpreters may mistranslate health care related terminology, and thus, fail to explain treatments, or discuss the medical history with patients. Untrained interpreters may make mistakes in their rendition including omission, addition, condensation, and substitution. They may even mistakenly assume a role of a medical staff. These acts worsen communication because both medical staff and patients, instead of hearing what each other says, only hears what the interpreter chooses to tell them, which may lead to exclusion from the decision-making process, resulting in inaccurate assessment and treatment decisions. Therefore, medical interpreters with specific skills and training can significantly avoid such problems.

Good doctor-patient relationship

An ideal doctor-patient relationship is built on communication in which the doctor can ask effective questions and listen to the patient's words. Different questioning styles can achieve different effects on relationships and create power-differential between doctors and patients. The use of leading questions and open questions can increase the participation of patients in the decision-making process. Only if the medical interaction encourages symmetrical and collaborative relationships can successful communication and medical provision be achieved.

The role of medical interpreters

Medical interpreters are inevitably involved in the relationship of health care providers and patients. The interpreters should interpret the patients’ utterance faithfully and accurately using the first-person perspective and give the doctor the chance to perform his/her duty. The interpreter gives equal respect to both parties and allows the doctor to take the initiative. Medical interpreters should improve the doctor-patient communication with their services.

2 Interpreting approach in medical setting

1. Direct Approach

It is an approach that the interpreter renders the conversation accurately. However, it does not mean to interpret word for word like a “translating machine”. In fact, interpreters have to bring out the intention behind the words spoken by the doctors and patients.

2. Mediated Approach

In this approach, the interpreter plays a decisive role to decide what to interpret and what to omit from the content spoken by the doctor and patient, like a “gatekeeper”.

3. Which approach would be better for the doctors and their patients?

In the case of the direct approach, the consultation is directed by the doctor, who asks the patient questions. The patient has the right to decide what to answer and how to answer. Through this interaction, a relationship is built up between the doctor and the patient.

The mediated approach is often adopted by untrained interpreters, who can help to save the doctor’s time by omitting irrelevant information and facilitate the patient’s understanding by adding information. However, the doctor and patient will have less interaction.

Working as a team

Interpreters and medical practitioners are equal professionals and should work as a team to achieve optimal results. On the other hand, patients should be informed of their right to be heard by speaking through the interpreter.

Prepared by:

CHAN Ka Yin Christy

LO Man Man Anita

CHO Mak Irene

HO Dong Qing Michelle

Edited by:

Dr. Janice Pan


Hale, S. B. (2007). Interdisciplinarity: Community Interpreting in the Medical Context. In Community interpreting (pp. 34-63). Hampshire: Palgrave McMillan. doi:

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