female doctor consulting female patient
Blog Language Services July 15, 2021

Why Family Members Shouldn’t Interpret for their Loved Ones

Imagine this – you are a medical provider who needs to communicate something to a patient. Your patient does not speak English, but their child who accompanied them to the hospital does. How tempting is it to turn to the child and simply request, “Can you tell your mother we need to take a biopsy?” The honest answer is that it is incredibly tempting. The family member is bilingual, has a great rapport with the patient, and is immediately available. At first glance, the request seems innocuous enough to be the right choice at the moment.

Now, what happens if the communication is a bit more serious? Something like: “Can you please tell your mother the side effects of anesthesia?” or, “Please tell your mother that her test came back positive, she has Breast Cancer.”

Relying on a family member to interpret is an understandable choice, but ultimately it is damaging for everyone involved. The provider cannot be certain that their message is being delivered accurately; the patient may be missing vital information, and the act of interpreting for a loved one can be traumatizing for the ad hoc interpreter. Studies have shown time and again that the use of professional interpreters reduces the chance of communication errors that lead to clinical consequences (source), and yet the use of ad hoc interpreters is still common.

We recently heard a story about an ASL interpreter who needed to accompany a deaf family member to the hospital. Even though the hospital in question was an AMN Healthcare client, the staff kept asking him to interpret for the patient. He had to explain time and time again how it was inappropriate for him to step in as an interpreter. He had an emotional connection to the patient, and even though interpretation was his profession, he would not be able to remain impartial and thus communication would suffer. Situations like that arise every day, and sometimes the consequences are dire.

There is a somewhat famous case in which a Vietnamese family relied on a 9-year-old patient’s 16-year-old brother for interpretation. As a result, the patient was administered Reglan without a proper explanation of the drug’s side effects and died as a result of an adverse reaction. Her parents never received a proper explanation of what their child was suffering from or explanation on what do to if her condition worsened. The case led to a $200,000 settlement, but it is impossible to put a price on the loss of a 9-year-old girl or the guilt and trauma suffered by her surviving older brother (source).

It is vital that every healthcare provider understands the clinical and psychological impact of relying on family members as interpreters, and it is important for hospital administration to reinforce the use of professional interpretation for every single patient encounter.

Fortunately, our interpreters are available 24x7x365.

View Language Interpreter Jobs