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Intercultural communication: challenges in interpreter-mediated medical consultations

Sophia Ra investigates the challenges encountered by professional healthcare interpreters, to explore their impact on the success of interpreter-mediated consultations and recommend strategies to deal with them.

Australia is one of the leading countries in community interpreting and provides various professional interpreting services within the public health system. This service uses nationally accredited interpreters who are expected to abide by a professional code of ethics. However, in spite of this national standard and policy, healthcare interpreters still face various challenges.

This study sets out to examine cross-cultural issues that could affect interpreter-mediated medical consultations, as well as the perceptions of interpreters working in different language combinations regarding to what extent they might be able to offer cultural brokerage in similar contexts. The study was carried out in a large hospital in Sydney, chosen because its catchment area includes a sizeable migrant population from a range of different ethnic backgrounds.  Observations of 20 interpreter-mediated medical consultations were followed by semi-structured interviews with five of the interpreters.

Findings suggest that interpreters face challenges relating to:

  • end-of-life situations
  • family involvement
  • patients’ reluctance to ask questions
  • nonverbal communication.

The study also identifies challenges caused by working conditions, protocols and expectations, including:

  • a lack of background information supplied prior to consultations
  • time constraints placed on the interpreting task
  • unrealistic expectations apparently entertained by both medical professionals and patients regarding the role of interpreters.

However, the study finds cross-cultural misunderstanding to be less of an issue for the interpreters involved than expected.

The study also explores a number of unethical behaviours engaged in by the interpreters involved, including side conversations being held between medical professionals and interpreters but not interpreted for patients, and interpreters acting as advisors for patients

Sophia Ra is a PhD student conducting research in the area of community interpreting at UNSW. Her research is supervised by Prof. Sandra Hale and Assoc. Prof. Ludmila Stern.

For further information, email Sophia Ra: s.ra@student.unsw.edu.au

This article was originally published in AUSIT's In Touch magazine, Vol 25, #1 (Autumn 2017).