Speaking the same language

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 3:14pm


Imagine receiving health care in a language you don’t understand fully. You’re not quite sure what the doctor or health professional is telling you and you don’t know how to ask the right questions. You have a friend who understands English better than you do, but you don’t want this friend to know about the health issues you’re facing. You muddle through your appointment alone, but go home feeling confused and not sure what to do next.

Every patient has a right to receive health care in a language they speak and understand. That’s why Capital Health offers interpretation services - either in person or over the phone - to all patients who need it.

Jen McPhee, physiotherapist, has used the service on two separate occasions to communicate with patients - one who spoke Punjabi, the other Arabic. Jen needed to assess and treat both patients for mobility-related challenges and it was vital they be able to communicate successfully.

“Trust is a very big part of the physiotherapist-patient interaction and I had no way to build this trust without communication,” said McPhee. “Having the interpreter available at the bedside (via phone) created an environment in which we could both safely and effectively interact. We could share the vital information that was essential in guiding our care plan to achieve the best possible outcome.”

The phone-based interpretation service Jen used to communicate with her patients is Language Line, which provides immediate access to medically certified interpreters in more than 170 languages. In 2012, Capital Health staff and physicians placed 445 calls to Language Line, accessing interpretation in 38 languages. The phone-based service is also available through Capital Health to the more than 400 family physicians in the district.

Face to face

In some cases, such as when gestures or body language are especially important to the communication, face-to-face interpretation may be more appropriate. Geri Hirsch, nurse practitioner with the Gastroenterology Clinic, has used both phone and face-to-face interpretation services.

“Sometimes the patient will get visual cues from the interpreter, which is helpful,” said Hirsch. “In some cases, patients have also developed a relationship and comfort level with a particular interpreter.”

In cases where face-to-face interpretation is deemed most appropriate, Capital Health works with the Nova Scotia Interpreting Service to arrange for an interpreter to be onsite. Capital Health also arranges interpretation services in Mi’kmaq through the Mi’kmaq Interpreter’s Liaison Program of Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq and in sign language through the Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians.

Why not use family members as interpreters?

There are a few reasons.

Relying on family and friends to translate compromises the patient’s right to keep their health information confidential. In addition, there are some cases where family members or friends may choose to withhold information from the patient; Capital Health has a responsibility to ensure the patient knows and understands all information about their health condition and care.

Finally, a medically certified interpreter knows and understands health care terminology and can ensure the patient is receiving accurate medical information.

“Using an interpreter allows patients and families can be involved in decisions about their treatment plan go away with a better understanding of that plan,” said Hirsch. “The interaction with patient, client and family is better, because everyone feels part of the decision-making.”