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Bilingual Jobs: How Medical Interpreters Help Heal With Language

Can patients get the care they need if they don’t speak the same language as their doctor? This interpreter is making a difference by breaking language barriers.

When you try to communicate with someone whose native language is different from yours, things can get lost in translation — ideas can be misconstrued and details can fall through the cracks. When it comes to health issues, miscommunication can be a matter of life-and-death. That’s why the role of medical interpreters in hospitals and medical offices is so crucial. They bridge the gap between what a medical provider says and how a patient interprets that information.

We spoke with Rebecca Aaron, a medical interpreter for a clinic operated by NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, to learn more about how she does her job.

Here’s How It Works

There are medical interpreters for many different languages, and their availability depends on the location of the facility. At Aaron’s clinic, a large number of Latin American patients who speak little or no English require Spanish interpreters. Aaron, a native English speaker, learned Spanish when she was growing up by speaking with her Mexican babysitter. She’s fluent — a job requirement for interpreters.

Aaron’s basic duties involve interpreting patients’ medical histories to doctors, and then interpreting doctors’ questions and diagnoses back to the patients. She remains in the room during other procedures — physical exams, injections, and such — in case anything needs to be interpreted.

“This ensures that the patient is getting the best care possible and that the doctor can make the best decisions for the patient,” Aaron explained.

Aaron describes a time she used her language skills to navigate a tense situation. A patient got a birth control implant in Colombia and, after relocating to New York, came in to Aaron’s clinic to get it removed. It was then that the doctors discovered the implant was placed too far behind the patient’s muscle.

“The patient came in hoping to remove this implant, and what is usually a quick incision became a much more serious procedure,” Aaron recalled. “I had to pay close attention to every single thing the doctors were doing, so I could tell her exactly what was happening. They would tell me the steps they were going to take to remove the implant beforehand, so I could translate each step to her.”

After the procedure, Aaron says the patient wanted to discuss her other contraceptive options with the doctor. During what ended up being a two-hour-long conversation, Aaron interpreted the patient’s questions and the doctor’s responses.

“There is so much information regarding women’s health and contraceptive options, and I knew she was relying on my translation skills to help her make the right decision,” Aaron said.

What’s The Most Challenging Part Of The Job?

For interpretation to work properly, it needs to be as precise and objective as possible. This is particularly true for medical interpretation, in which the accuracy of the information being interpreted is paramount. A caring individual would find it difficult to be entirely dispassionate when facing a patient with serious health concerns, however, and Aaron says she struggles with this regularly.

"One of the most difficult parts of the job is separating my emotions from my clinical interpretations,” Aaron says. “I am a very sensitive person and am extremely empathetic toward patients. However, my primary job is to ensure their understanding of the doctor’s words and suggestions.”

But is having compassion for patients a bad thing? Maybe a balance can be struck between empathizing with patients and foregoing accuracy and professionalism. Aaron seems to think so.

“To be quite honest, I have gotten very upset and even cried at the clinic after having to tell a woman she had breast cancer,” Aaron says. “But I don’t think this is a bad thing, since most patients seek empathy from their doctors.”

With empathy comes trust, and that can lead to some funny situations. Aaron says when she’s interpreting treatment options for patients, they’ll often ask her what they should do, or what she would do if she was in their shoes. Because she’s not a doctor, she’s not allowed to give medical advice, but she’s glad they ask.

“It is pretty special that they are able to trust me so quickly because I am able to do something as simple as speak their language,” Aaron said.

And The Most Rewarding Part?

Any career that involves helping people will likely bring a sense of satisfaction, and Aaron’s job is no exception. She describes her work as “very important and extremely rewarding,” adding that it’s immediately gratifying to see the patients communicating with ease and comfort. People are often much more comfortable and honest when speaking in their native language, and when serious health-related topics come up, effective communication is critical.

“I believe no human should feel helpless, especially when it comes to their health,” Aaron said. “If I can help someone understand what is happening to their body and what can be done to cure them or alleviate their pain, I am beyond satisfied.”

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