medical interpreter on headset
Language Services July 11, 2022

By Cassandra Damascus

Medical Interpreters’ Tips for Success

With High Stakes Comes High Stress

Medical interpreters accurately interpret everything that is said in a healthcare encounter in its entirety, including complex healthcare information that may be perceived differently from one culture to another. The stakes are high, as the quality of the medical interpreter’s work is directly correlated with patient experience and outcome.

Highly emotional situations invoke higher levels of stress in interpreters. Examples include patients and family members receiving a terminal prognosis or life changing news. Traumatic situations can be witnessed, particularly when working in urgent care or other high stress environments. Studies have found that the intensity level of the session has a larger impact on the interpreter than the length of the session. The quantity and speed of interpretation sessions, for both onsite interpreters who must physically get from one part of the hospital to another in a limited amount of time and remote interpreters who jump from one interpreting session to the next, add to the stress factor.

In addition to a high level of responsibility, the nature of the work is complex. Medical interpreters navigate complicated, interpersonal dynamics. Due to the demanding nature of medical interpretation, it is common for even the most dedicated professionals to experience interpreter fatigue. Fortunately, interpreter fatigue can be reduced, and better performance can be achieved by following these helpful tips:

Schedule Sessions Based on Complexity

Interpreter schedules can be more effectively managed by factoring the complexity of the sessions versus the number of sessions alone.

To help reduce interpreter fatigue, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta recommends establishing “a measurement system used for identifying and stratifying encounters according to their complexity and the corresponding mental resources used by the interpreter”, also known as acuity in healthcare interpreting.

The principal was adopted from the concept of acuity in nursing, which evaluates the intensity of the care needed by the patient. By looking at what is required to fulfill the needs of each patient, nurse managers can staff more appropriately. This helps ensure patient needs are met while simultaneously reducing stress in the workplace. The same applies to medical interpreting.

Have a Support System in Place

Medical interpreters carry heavy weight – the challenge of communication folded in with the urgency of healing a patient. It is important for interpreters to release the emotional hardships that can evolve by developing coping strategies for processing distressing clinical material.

A compelling study on the effects of interpreting mental health therapy sessions for LEP refugees found it essential that “interpreters have an adequate support system and…receive consistent support from experienced staff within their agency”. Interpreters who participated in the study reported a moderate increase in stress over the first few weeks to months of their work due to the intensity of the information shared during the interpretation sessions. The medical interpreters, some of them refugees themselves, internalized the trauma of the LEP patients, as if it were their own. Also known as vicarious trauma, this is a common phenomenon, also experienced by first responders and other healthcare professionals.

Interpreters who received ongoing support for the trauma reported a significant decrease of stress over the length of the study. The study concluded that an increase in institutional support could minimize the difficulties that interpreters experience in their daily work.

For more about the importance of support systems in medical interpretation, read Support Networks & Why They Are Important for Interpreters.

Establish Healthier Work Habits

The American Translators Association (ATA) recommends the following to help battle interpreter fatigue:

  1. Take breaks, hydrate, and eat throughout the day.
  2. Team interpreting upon request in the case of excessive fatigue.

Team interpreting allows interpreters to share the workload. When sessions are particularly long or emotionally exhaustive, interpreters can pass the session when the time is right to another interpreter on the team. Team interpreting has also been shown to ensure consistent quality and reduce the overall occurrence of errors.

When it comes to stress, ATA recommends the following tips to help interpreters self-manage:

  • Identify where the stress originates.
  • Pinpoint the physical signs of stress.
  • Practice healthy habits outside of work.

Interpreter fatigue is widespread in healthcare due to the high stress environment and nature of conversations that take place as well as the complexity of the work itself. At AMN Healthcare Language Services, managers and interpreters make it a priority to reduce interpreter fatigue every day.

Are you a medical interpreter looking to join a supportive team?

View Available Medical Interpreter Positions