Do I Need an Interpreter?

An interpreter can help you talk to your doctor if you don’t speak English. You may also want an interpreter if you speak only a little English. Or you can use one if you simply don’t feel comfortable talking to your doctor in English.

There are some good electronic apps that can help you translate. But when it comes to medical language, a personal interpreter is better.

As part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), you may be entitled to an interpreter at no cost to you. Doctors are required to offer language assistant services to patients who have limited English proficiency (LEP).

Also, your health care provider must provide HIPAA information in multiple languages.

What if I am deaf or hard of hearing?

If you are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH), you should certainly consider having an interpreter when visiting your doctor. This is especially true if you speak sign language. A person who can sign to you what the doctor is saying will help you communicate better. This is true even if you read lips in addition to signing. Plus, the sign language interpreter will be able to speak to the doctor on your behalf.

If you are DHH, your doctor or health care provider must provide a way to communicate with you. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), health care providers have a duty to furnish auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication with people who have disabilities. This does not mean they must hire a person to interpret. They could use a transcription service, like CART (computer-aided transcription). This is true even if you aren’t the patient. Communication aids must be provided if you are a deaf parent taking your hearing child to the doctor.

Path to improved health

How do I find an interpreter?

Ask you nurse or doctor what services are provided for LEP patients. According to the ACA, your doctor cannot require you to provide your own interpreter. You can provide your own interpreter if you prefer to do so.

Can I use a friend or family member?

You can ask friends or family members who speak English to come with you to the doctor’s office. You may not want them to be your interpreter, though. You may have a personal matter that you might not want your friend or family member to know about. So it might be easier to talk to an interpreter. If the doctor’s office has an interpreter, you can ask your friend or family member to wait in the waiting room. You may have a child who speaks English. However, it is better to have an adult interpreter. Children often don’t comprehend medical words or get upset by the things they don’t understand. Plus, the new ACA rules prohibit doctors from relying on minors when speaking to LEP patients. They can do so only in emergency situations.

Do I talk to the doctor or the interpreter?

Talk directly to the doctor. Your doctor is the person who will answer your questions about your health. The interpreter will make sure you and your doctor understand each other. The interpreter should not make any recommendations or decisions. That is your doctor’s job. The interpreter is only there to help you and your physician communicate better.

Is it safe to tell the interpreter about my problems?

It is important that you share information in an honest and open way with your interpreter. Don’t let fear or embarrassment keep you from talking about any of your health problems. The interpreter is a professional and won’t talk to anyone else about your health problems.

Things to consider

If you are uncomfortable with your interpreter, it is okay to ask for another one. For example, you may not be comfortable with an interpreter of the opposite sex. It doesn’t matter the reason.

You should also let your doctor know if you would like the interpreter to leave the room while your doctor examines you. After the doctor finishes examining you, the interpreter can come back in the room. Then he or she can help you and your doctor talk about what the doctor found during the exam.

Questions for your doctor

  • What kind of language assistance services do you provide?
  • Can you provide written medical instructions in the language I speak?
  • If I am calling to make an appointment, will someone be able to speak to me in my language on the phone?

Resources

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Programs and Services