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3 Challenges of Using Interpreters in the ER – and how to Overcome Them

Imagine a trauma victim brought into the emergency room, conscious but seriously injured and in need of immediate help. Even worse, the patient doesn’t speak English.

As a language services professional, you want every department in the hospital to have easy access to interpreters. Different departments present different challenges, and the ER may be the most challenging of all.

With proper planning and training, interpreters can be highly effective members of the emergency room medical team. Here are three common challenges facing interpreters in the ER and some suggestions to address them:

1. How do I keep a language barrier from slowing down treatment in an ER setting?

Make interpreters quick and easy to access, and provide regular staff training. If the process is complicated or involves long waits for an interpreter, staff may forego it altogether because “there isn’t time.”

Hospital training should familiarize your staff with the process and stress that not using an interpreter means they could be acting on inaccurate information. Staff can practice using equipment like dual-handset phones and video interpreter carts during training so they can do so instinctively in emergency scenarios.

 

2. Where do I position the interpreter in the ER to maximize effectiveness and minimize intrusion?

The ideal position for an interpreter is near the patient’s head – a challenge in the ER when medical staff also needs to occupy that space.

Consider using language services solutions with minimal “footprints” – size, ergonomics, and adjustability factor in when selecting video interpretation carts for the ER. When appropriate, use phone interpretation – a modality which takes virtually no space. Teach on-site interpreters best practices for where to stand when assisting emergency patients.

3. How do I help an interpreter cope with the hectic ER environment and interacting with multiple providers?

Interpreters – whether they’re on-site staff or connected through phone or video – should receive training in handling medical scenarios so they can anticipate the sometimes-chaotic nature of the field.

Likewise, successful hospitals train their ER staff to work with interpreters. This could include how consecutive interpreting works, when to pause, and why they should continue speaking directly to the patient and let the interpreter relay their message. In situations with many doctors and nurses, the designated Trauma Team Leader (TTL) should take a lead role with the interpreter, handling most of the interaction.

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