Comparing in-person, video, and telephonic medical interpretation

J Gen Intern Med. 2010 Apr;25(4):345-50. doi: 10.1007/s11606-009-1236-x. Epub 2010 Jan 27.


Background: Using trained interpreters to provide medical interpretation services is superior to services provided on an ad hoc basis, but little is known about the effectiveness of providing their services remotely, especially using video.

Objective: To compare remote medical interpretation services by trained interpreters via telephone and videoconference to those provided in-person.

Design: Quasi-randomized control study.

Participants: Two hundred and forty-one Spanish speaking patient volunteers, twenty-four health providers, and seven interpreters.

Approach: Patients, providers and interpreters each independently completed scales evaluating the quality of clinical encounters and, optionally, made free text comments. Interviews were conducted with 23 of the providers, the seven interpreters, and a subset of 30 patients. Time data were collected.

Results: Encounters with in-person interpretation were rated significantly higher by providers and interpreters, while patients rated all methods the same. There were no significant differences in provider and interpreter ratings of remote methods. Provider and interpreter comments on scales and interview data support the higher in-person ratings, but they also showed a distinct preference for video over the phone. Phone interviews were significantly shorter than in-person.

Discussion: Patients rated interpretation services highly no matter how they were provided but experienced only the method employed at the time of the encounter. Providers and interpreters were exposed to all three methods, were more critical of remote methods, and preferred videoconferencing to the telephone as a remote method. The significantly shorter phone interviews raise questions about the prospects of miscommunication in telephonic interpretation, given the absence of a visual channel, but other factors might have affected time results. Since the patient population studied was Hispanic and predominantly female care must be taken in generalizing these results to other populations.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Communication*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Remote Consultation*
  • South Carolina
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Telephone*
  • Video Recording*
  • Waiting Lists
  • Young Adult