The Importance of Quality in Interpreting in Health and Mental Health Care Settings

A Q&A with Kiran Malli, Director of the Provincial Language Service (PLS).

The PLS is a program of the Provincial Health Services Authority of British Columbia

January 19, 2017

Vancouver, British Columbia

Q. Hello Kiran and thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions.

A. Hello Angela, not a problem at all. In fact it is my pleasure.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about the service you provide?

A. As you know, the PLS is the only provincial interpreter services program in Canada and what makes us more unique is the fact that we are a part of BC’s health care system. That means that our standard of service has to meet a high threshold for quality and efficiency. I believe it is imperative that PLS encourages interpreters to acquire the skills and education that is necessary to achieve a certain competency.

Q. Why do you think it is important for interpreters to have training specifically in working in healthcare settings?

A. The importance of using professional, vetted and qualified interpreters in health care cannot be understated. They are essential tools in the delivery of appropriate and accessible health care. The skills involved in interpreting go far beyond those of speaking two or more languages. Just as having two legs doesn’t make one a marathon runner, having two languages doesn’t make one an interpreter. To finish a marathon, training is required and certain techniques are learned, employed and perfected through the training process. Similarly, a professional interpreter possesses learned skills that are developed and perfected through training. The cognitive process of interpreting can indeed be as grueling as a marathon run.

Q. What do you look for when recruiting interpreters?

A. We look for people who are trained, have proven language proficiency in their language pairing and have interpreting experience.

Q. From your experiences, how is the work of interpreters trained to work in healthcare setting different than that of interpreter without that specialized training?

A. A health care encounter is, more often than not, a collaborative encounter in which everyone is on the side of the patient or client getting well. Interpreters with health care training are more confident in their role and fully understand the context and the possible dynamics at play. A trained health care interpreter will know when it is appropriate to sight translate material (patient education material) and when it is not (consent documents). They will understand that sometimes providing cultural context is necessary to achieve positive health outcomes and ensure patient safety. For example, when a health care provider instructs a patient to take medication after every meal, the health care provider is coming from a Canadian context of three meals a day, whereas the patient may be from a cultural context in which tea time is consider a meal and therefore may take the mediation four times a day. A cultural frame must be provided.

“At PLS we strive to only assign mental health appointments to interpreters that have taken the effort to gain that extra education and training.”

Q. What is the feedback you hear from healthcare professionals in terms of the quality of interpreting?

A. Health care providers often comment on the high quality of our interpreters. They have said that PLS interpreters are professional and an important tool in ensuring appropriate and effective patient care. HCP’s are also quick to point when an interpreter does not meet the expected standard. It is important to note that the quality of an interpreter does come through in every encounter.

It is no doubt that the training was helpful in two folds. First of all, interpreters are more familiar with the terms used in the field. Secondly, interpreters are taught how to deal with some common situations in mental health.

PSL Interpreter

Q. What are your views on specialized training for mental health settings or complex care situations?

A. Interpreters that work in mental health are especially challenged to ensure that the message is accurately and faithfully transmitted. This is for many reasons, least of which is the significant role that culture plays in concepts of mental health, mental illness and stigma. In addition to that, mental health issues and the system of care are a complex maze of interactive conditions and factors. At PLS we strive to only assign mental health appointments to interpreters that have taken the effort to gain that extra education and training. It makes a big difference both for the client, the family and the mental health care professional.

Q. Well, we would like to thank you once again for giving us a few minutes of your time and hope that we can talk again in the future.

A. I would love to join you again. Thank you.


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