Using Medical Interpreters

An interpreter may enhance your communication with patients who speak a different language. Using interpreters also may help improve compliance with prevention and treatment regimens. Some tips for selecting and using an interpreter include:

  • When possible, choose an interpreter whose age, sex, and background are similar to the patient.
  • Brief interpreters privately with relevant information about patients before appointments.
  • Verify the interpreter understands the message you are trying to convey.
  • Address your patients directly. Encourage the interpreter to ask questions or clarify messages.
  •  Avoid directing all comments to the interpreter.
  • Talk in short sentences.  
  • Discuss one concept at a time.
  • Avoid using medical jargon when possible. It may be diffficult for the interpreter or the patient to understand
  • Be patient. Careful interpretation may require the interpreter to use long phrases. It can take more words or time to describe a concept in another language.
  • Come back to an issue if there is a problem or a negative response from the patient
  • Be aware of non-verbal cues from your patient, such as nodding, smiling and body language. These cues may indicate how much information is understood.

Our Provider Toolkit also provides information on how to find interpreter services for your practice.

Tips for Locating Interpreter Services

Use the following resources to learn about using interpreter resources for your practice:  

Using Medical Interpreters
A discussion about medical interpreters from the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Language Services Action Kit.
A booklet in English and Spanish about Interpreter Services in Health Care Settings for People with Limited English Proficiency.

English Version
Spanish Version

Universal Symbols in Health Care: Best Practices for Sign Systems
A workbook, written for health care providers. It recommends the use of universal symbols as an alternative to the challenges and expense of signs in different languages.

Getting the Most from Language Interpreters
Guidelines for providers on how to work with interpreters on-site and via telephone.

Limited English Proficiency Manual
A manual for health care providers to ensure Asians, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have access to health care services.

Using Bilingual Staff Members as Interpreters
If you don't have access to a professionally trained interpreter, these tips will help you maximize the resources you have.

Hablamos Juntos (We speak together)
A project for improving patient-provider communication for Latinos, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Health Care Language Services Implementation Guide
Information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health,

Language Line Services
Provides access to telephone interpreter services.