Communicating with foreign language-speaking patients: is access to professional interpreters enough?

J Travel Med. 2010 Jan-Feb;17(1):15-20. doi: 10.1111/j.1708-8305.2009.00314.x.


Background: The importance of trained interpreters for ensuring adequate communication with limited English proficiency patients is well-established. However, in many contexts, health professionals continue to rely on ad hoc interpreters, such as bilingual employees or patients' relatives to provide linguistic assistance. This is worrisome because these strategies have been shown to be associated with poor quality health care.

Objective: Examine attitudes and practices related to healthcare interpreting.

Design: Mailed, self-administered questionnaire.

Setting and participants: Convenience sample of medical and nursing department and service heads at the Geneva University Hospitals.

Outcome measures: Adequacy of attitudes and practices related to interpreter use.

Results: Ninety-nine questionnaires were completed and returned (66% response rate). Between 43% and 86% of respondents relied mainly on patients' relatives and bilingual employees for linguistic assistance, depending on the language in question. Professional interpreter use varied according to language (from 5% to 39%) and seems to reflect the availability of bilingual staff members for the different languages. Professional interpreters appear to be used only in the absence of other available options, due to cost concerns and scheduling difficulties. This practice is further reinforced by the belief that ad hoc interpreters are "good enough" even while recognizing the quality differential between trained and untrained interpreters (91.2% of respondents rated bilingual staff as satisfactory or good, and 79.5% rated family/friends as satisfactory or good).

Conclusions: Simply making professional interpreter services available to healthcare professionals does not appear to guarantee their use for limited French proficiency (LFP) patients. Future efforts should focus on developing procedures for systematically identifying patients needing linguistic assistance, linguistic assistance strategies that are responsive to provider and institutional contexts and constraints, and institutional directives to ensure use of qualified interpreters for all medically important communication with LFP patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Academic Medical Centers
  • Communication
  • Emigration and Immigration
  • France
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Multilingualism*
  • Professional-Patient Relations*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Switzerland
  • Translating
  • Travel / psychology