The Importance of Safety and Risk Management for the Medical Interpreter
by Anita Coelho Diabate; Portuguese Interpreter, Cambridge Health Alliance
I never thought when entering the field of Medical interpretation that I would be faced with such occupational hazards. It was an eye-opening realization that many interpreters actually can find themselves in difficult situations that pose risks to their safety and health. Professionally trained Medical interpreters are the nation's primary resource in providing language access to foreign speaking patients in a healthcare setting. The safety of each interpreter in an interpreter-assisted encounter depends largely on the skills of the professionally trained interpreter to use his or her knowledge, judgment and common sense to remain safe and avoid the associated risks.
To orient themselves to the safety guidelines of the healthcare system where they are employed is paramount. Understanding protocols most appropriate in an emergency situation involving fire, hazardous spills, bodily fluids and sharps will help to minimize the chance of bodily harm and can often save the lives of others. The myth is that an interpreter is there simply to provide language interpretation when in fact, an interpreter is a non-clinical member of the medical team and as such, must be prepared to support the clinical team and the patients like any other team member.
The interpreter must always be aware of all factors and be proactive in maintaining their own safety while interpreting. Examples would be that an interpreter never allow themselves to be left alone with a patient if a situation feels at all unsafe or if the patient might be potentially volatile, either in a medical encounter and most especially in a Mental Health setting. Others might be that if a patient has a known contagion, the interpreter be sure to take proper precautions to wear a gown and mask to stay protected, or to wear a lead apron and remain behind the protective glass in Radiology settings.
Hand-hygiene is of the utmost importance in staying healthy in an environment where many bacterial and viral contagions are present and can be the single most effective method of preventing the spread of disease to not only the interpreter but also from patient to patient. Most interpreters are not aware that they should wash their hands between patient visits just as physicians are required to. In addition, taking yearly flu vaccines and not going to work when sick will also help greatly in protecting all concerned.
Though it may sound dangerous, having made the choice to become a Medical interpreter has been the most rewarding professional decision I have made and continues to prove on a daily basis that helping patients to communicate with their healthcare providers as their interpreter outweighs all the risks.
Anita Coelho Diabate is a full-time medical and mental health interpreter at Cambridge Health Alliance, CHA, Cambridge Massachusetts, USA. She is a graduate of the Cambridge College Medical Interpreting Certificate Program and the Mental Health Interpreting Program for practicing medical interpreters. She serves as a preceptor for those seeking practicums and has worked in the hospital's internal call center as a dedicated telephone interpreter as well as on the floor assisting patients face to face for over five years. In addition she assists the Multilingual Services Department with many quality improvement initiatives. Outside of CHA Anita offers continuing education workshops for medical interpreters to various training organizations.
© 2013, International Medical Interpreters Association
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