How to use interpreters better

13 May 2022
Spring 2022

The use of family members as interpreters by non-English speaking patients is a long-established tradition, but there is a better way, writes Steve Smethurst.

In 2020, Sofia Sarfraz, Senior Clinical Fellow in Paediatrics and Medical Education, told the BMJ: “We’ve all used patients’ family members or other health professionals as interpreters in consultations. It’s hard to see how medicine could function in our multicultural society without them, especially in emergencies. But non-professional interpreters should be used with caution and you should consider the risks. The gold standard for patients who don’t share your language is to use a professional interpreter” (Rimmer, 2020).

Sofia went on to explain that a family member may give their own version of what they’ve heard and their emphasis could skew a consultation. Similarly, a family member may find it hard to share difficult or bad news.

There was also a warning that an overreliance on minors as translators could cause them harm. This can range from the child being taken out of school to act as an interpreter, to distress at their exposure to complex medical communication.

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