Breaking down barriers: The essential role of interpreters on patient care teams

August 21, 2018  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

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Several years ago, a patient at Michigan Medicine was going into labor. However, when she was led to a delivery room, the patient refused to enter.

“The faculty and staff in the birth center were unsure why,” said Michelle Harris, manager of Interpreter Services at Michigan Medicine. “Because the patient didn’t speak English, the inability to communicate led to the patient’s and care staff’s confusion and an increase in the patient’s anxiety and stress. A medical interpreter was called in, who quickly realized that the No. 4 in the patient’s culture was deemed to be bad luck, and she had been assigned to delivery room No. 4.”

The patient was quickly taken to another room, where she was able to relax and gave birth to a healthy baby.

“At such a large health system, it is inevitable that there will sometimes be a language barrier between staff members and patients — which can then be magnified by cultural barriers,” Harris said. “Our team lifts those barriers, ensuring that all of our patients have access to the high quality care they deserve.”

Always available

Interpreter Services at Michigan Medicine is made up nearly 100 highly-trained professional medical interpreters. The team can perform in-person interpretations in 20 spoken languages in addition to American Sign Language. Over the Phone Interpreting (OPI) from two approved vendors can provide 24/7 expert interpretation services in more than 200 languages. Patients can also use a service called DIAL when they need to communicate with their Michigan Medicine providers, which utilizes an interpreter over the phone when the patient dials a toll free number.

For two common languages — Spanish and American Sign Language (ASL) — a medical interpreter is on call 24/7. And there is an after-hours directory of interpreters available from the internal Interpreter Services web page who may be available, though they are not on call.

“Our services can be requested by patients, families or providers,” Harris said. “Should a provider want to bring an interpreter to their meetings with patients or family members, they should never hesitate to ask. That way, they can be certain that vital information is being communicated effectively and accurately.”

Bridging a gap

There is a lot more to becoming a medical interpreter than simply being bilingual.

Each medical interpreter goes through a rigorous, 40+-hour training course that focuses on the ethical standards of practice at Michigan Medicine. They also must attend a medical terminology course and workshops on palliative care and mental health. Additionally, all learn to follow well-established protocols, such as speaking in first person, communicating in measured, reflective tones and properly positioning her/himself by the patient or provider.

“The primary goal of our team is to enable effective communication between the health care providers and our patients, which results in stronger provider-patient relationships,” Harris said. “Clinicians never need to be concerned about a medical interpreter coming between them and their patients — in fact, medical interpreters serve as a bridge between them.”

Harris continued: “It’s important for medical interpreters to be treated as part of the care team. If a doctor or nurse is going to be sharing news — whether positive or negative — it’s best to prepare the medical interpreter beforehand. That way, the interpreter isn’t learning information on the spot and can deliver the news without inadvertently interjecting their own emotions.”

Providing patient-centered care

Interpreter Services is always seeking new and innovative ways to help patients. For instance, the team is currently piloting a program for video interpreters in Spanish and Mandarin that involves joining the Health Care Interpreter Network, where medical interpreters from around the country can be utilized via video or phone whenever they are available.

“This is an exciting program,” Harris said. “It will increase the number of languages and number of interpreters we can provide to our patients.”

Indeed, when you have more than 70,000 requests a year, that’s an important step to take.

“If faculty and staff can’t communicate effectively with a patient, or the patient can’t communicate effectively with staff, you can’t truly be providing patient-centered care,” Harris said. “That’s what we’re here for and that’s how we improve the patient experience every day at Michigan Medicine.”

Refer patients and families to Interpreter Services at 734-936-7021 or click here for more information.