September 2012: Medical Interpreting: Laws, Obligations & Culture

Our Medical Home meeting season kicked off in September with a highly informative presentation by Timothy J. Moriarty, manager of Baystate Health Interpreter & Translation Services. Because many families are unaware of the importance of translation services, we’d like to share some of the information presented on these essential resources.

The Springfield area is rich in many languages, English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Russian being most prominent. In medical situations, where communication is crucial, significant problems can arise when proper translation services are not utilized. Although many healthcare providers rely on English-speaking family and friends of patients to relay medical information, it’s important to use an interpreter in medical settings to insure proficiency in both languages and in medical terminology used. As well, interpreters are privy to cultural issues and will avert cultural misunderstandings. Because an interpreter is obligated to interpret everything exactly as it’s said, they cannot provide opinion which could influence the patient or provider.

Although it may be convenient to use family and friends for translation assistance, it is a problematic practice that may lead to embarrassing situations, incorrect or incomplete translations, or transfer of opinions that may discourage the patient from treatment. As well, family and friends generally lack training in medical terminology, and the presence of family and friends may violate HIPAA policies.

We’d like to share some of the basic interpretation guidelines that Tim presented for patients and providers:

  • Providers should take “Medical Spanish” classes to build relationships with patients, but not to substitute for a medical interpreter.
  • Providers should ignore the interpreter and speak directly to the patient in first person.
  • Both parties should allow for breaks as necessary for the interpreter.
  • The interpreter will not stop the patient from providing extraneous information- the provider must.
  • The interpreter will not provide clarification to the patient- the provider must.

All patients have the right to medical interpretation services to ensure that their health concerns are respected and to avoid patient discrimination, as Title IV of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 addresses. Medical staff, nonprofit organizations, and government workers should offer interpreting services because they are required to by federal and state law. For more information about patients’ rights to translation services, please review the National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health Care and the National Certification for Medical and Healthcare Interpreters. Also, please be aware that emergency rooms and locked psychiatric units offer interpreter services, as stated in the MA Emergency Room Interpreter Law. For further information on the Baystate Health Interpreter & Translation Services, contact Timothy J. Moriarty, MPA, CMI, Manager at


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