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Best Practices When Working With an Interpreter


When caring for a patient with limited English proficiency, understand that you’ll need to collaborate effectively with an interpreter. Speak naturally in the first person and maintain eye contact with your patient, not the interpreter.

Connecting with Patients | August 4, 2021 | 1 min read

By Susana Velarde, Suzanne Crouse, and Kimberly Chmiel


About 25 million Americans speak limited English and require language assistance with an interpreter for medical discussions. Language barriers contribute to lower quality of care in limited English proficient (LEP) patients compared to their English-speaking counterparts. Effective patient-clinician communication is an integral part of clinical practice and serves as the keystone of patient-physician relationships. Use of qualified bilingual staff and professional medical interpreters has been shown to improve communication and decrease medical errors with LEP patients. The main role of the interpreter is to facilitate understanding in communication between people who are speaking two different languages. However, the most important relationship in the triangle of patient-doctor-interpreter is between the patient and the doctor.


Every patient is unique and requires an individual assessment of their language/communication needs. Here are a few tips when working with a patient with limited English proficiency:


1. If time allows, coordinate with the interpreter before engaging with the patient.


2. Once the patient is present, engage with the patient by speaking in the first person and maintaining eye contact to develop rapport.


3. Speak naturally, and pause often for interpretation.


4. Understand that interpreting is meaning for meaning, not word for word.


5. Don’t try to get by on your own language skills or Google translate.


Utilizing these best practices when working with an interpreter will reduce communication barriers and patient anxiety, and promote trust, understanding, and health.





This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.