The Importance of Medical Interpreters during Disaster Relief Efforts

Natural disasters require quick and effective responses in order to halt and mitigate damage to human health and infrastructure. For medical responders, administering aid is made difficult by communication issues arising from patients experiencing trauma as well as language barriers. Medical interpreters are needed to help doctors provide proper medical care and avoid grievous medical horrors that can result from miscommunication.

Interpreters who took Medical interpreter training courses are better equipped with knowledge and skills to facilitate communication between doctors and patients and help doctors evaluate patients’ symptoms and come up with the proper diagnosis.

Emergency situations can occur at any time. Whether they are natural disasters forecasted weeks in advance or human-borne accidents, emergencies of all kinds require quick and effective responses. Catastrophes such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis necessitate systemic responses from governmental and non-governmental organizations in order to halt and mitigate damage both to civilians and infrastructure. Of primary importance to each organization is securing the physical health of civilians caught in danger zones. Securing civilian health depends on the reliability of information relayed and received across the board. Unfortunately, for the many with limited English proficiency or speech and hearing disabilities, such aid is often hindered by language barriers between them and emergency responders.

Medical Interpreter CertificationThe quality of medical care depends heavily on the quality of information communicated between patients and doctors. Vital Information such as the type of pains and aches, the location of discomfort, or relevant medical history is lost when patients and doctors rely on incomprehensible physical gestures rather than the accurate and calculated words of a medical interpreter. Disturbances to the flow of such information can cause great harm and exacerbate an already desperate situation.

Without medical interpreters available, unnecessary, and potentially grave, errors in diagnosis, drug prescription, and hospital stay occur regularly and, ultimately, work to impede rescue operations. Interactions between doctors and patients are difficult enough, compounding that difficulty with language barriers and psychological trauma makes administering medical care an impossible task. A calm and collected interpreter acting as a liaison between doctor and patient is key to avoiding these catastrophic errors.  Moreover, reliable information relayed to people of all speech and linguistic backgrounds not only saves live, it cuts the financial costs arising from inefficient rescue operations—it allows emergency responders to divert their limited resources to other needs.

The Need for Medical Interpreting when Natural Disasters Hit In the United States, the prevalence of non-English speaking immigrant groups makes having certified medical interpreters a necessary part of every emergency response operation. Of course no emergency response operation can have interpreters for every language--it would be costly, disorganized, and unnecessary—but every emergency response office should at least have regular contact with interpreters proficient in the most popularly spoken languages in the area. In areas with large Spanish-speaking populations, for example, interpreters with Spanish interpreter certification should be an integral part of response teams for disasters natural or man-made.  Areas with varied language backgrounds have these services available to aid in managing and mitigating disasters.

A recent natural disaster highlighted the damage possible when unprofessional help is enlisted for interpreting services. During hurricane Irma, a Florida county, Manatee County--out of presumed desperation-- hastily chose a man with limited ASL proficiency instead of a trained professional to relay vital information about safety procedures and locales to the county’s deaf community. Instead of warning of a hurricane and instructing awaiting citizens on evacuation plans, the translator signaled incomprehensively for long stretches of time, warning of “monsters”, “bears” and “pizza”. It goes without saying, though many did point it out, that the county’s inadequate interpreting services endangered thousands of its citizens. Had the translator taken interpreter courses or held a translating certificate, as trained interpreters do, the disaster could have been avoided.

Get the necessary, in person training in order to become a competent professional medical interpreter. Register now for our upcoming Medical Interpreter Training Program on our website:

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Yana Fisher

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