Friday, August 10, 2012

Translator phones

When I was in internship and did outpatient clinic, we had a LOT of patients who didn't speak English. I do speak passable Spanish, but I couldn't even fake any other languages. So we'd use the Translator Phone.

Basically, you call a number, tell them the language you wanted, and they'd find a translator for you. You'd put the translator on speaker phone and make a valiant attempt to get a history.

Obviously, the translator phone was not great. It's hard enough to get a history through a translator, but to try to do it on speaker phone was pretty painful. But we had yet another problem, which was that it often took a long time to get a translator on the line. When we had a full roster of patients to see, this was not ideal.

I remember I was with a patient, waiting for an interpreter to come on the phone. After god knows how long, we finally got the interpreter. In my excitement, I stood up, knocked the phone, and hung up the line. I almost cried, but instead I think I laughed. I was so tired, I definitely had to do one or the other.

Eventually, we had a meeting where the residents complained about the translator phones and how long it took to get an interpreter. One of the administrators finally said she'd speak with them and make sure we always got a phone interpreter within five minutes. "Does that sound okay?" she asked.

We all mumbled that yes, it was okay. But then one intern in the back spoke up: "No, it's not okay! Five minutes is a long time! Why don't we just sit here in silence now for five minutes and see how that goes??"

He had a valid point. Five minutes of staring at the patient in uncomfortable silence is a long time.

The next year, I rotated at that hospital as a resident and the phones were better. I usually didn't have to wait very long for an interpreter anymore.


  1. The hospital where I did my first unit of CPE (chaplaincy training) also had translator phones, and I was petrified of needing to do pastoral care through one. I had one patient encounter with someone via translator who was with them in the ER, and that was tough enough- actually, it was nearly impossible, past the "find out what's wrong, check that it's ok, and offer a quick prayer/blessing" point. Maybe someone with more training can do better- but gosh, that was tough.

  2. Hahahah that resident's comment was awesome.

  3. USE AT&T!!
    I have never had to wait but a minute!!