Good medical care depends on good communication. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals need to be able to understand a patient’s symptoms and concerns. Patients also need to be able to understand what their medical provider is telling them about their health. If you do not speak fluent English and your doctor is not fluent in your language, you should always ask for an interpreter.
In the United States, the law says no one can be turned away from medical care because they do not speak English. Also, any medical professional or agency that receives money from the federal government (such as Medicaid or Medicare) is required to provide free interpretation to people who need it. Here are some frequently asked questions about medical care and interpretation.
How do I ask for an interpreter?
There are several ways you can ask for an interpreter. You can say the phrase, “No English. I speak (your preferred language.)” If you are at the appointment, you can also show an “I speak” card to the front desk when you seek medical care. These cards can be printed to keep in your wallet or downloaded to your phone and shown to the front desk staff. You can find a link to download or print an “I speak______” card at the end of each article translation.
How do I make sure they have medical interpretation at my medical appointments?
When you are making a medical appointment, tell the staff member that you need an interpreter and in what language. When you call to make an appointment, start your conversation by saying: “No English. I speak (your preferred language)." You may have to practice this phrase several times. The medical clinic should get an interpreter on the phone. Once the interpreter is on the phone, be sure to ask that an interpreter be scheduled for your medical appointment. You can also ask that it be noted in your medical chart that you need an interpreter in your language.
My child is fluent in English. Can they interpret for me?
Never have your child interpret for you. Even if they know English, it puts a child in a very difficult position and the chance for them to get something wrong is high. Medical providers often speak quickly and use words that are even confusing to adult English speakers. If someone misinterprets even one word, your health could be at risk. Medical professionals should never ask a child to interpret. You should never ask your child to interpret. Always ask for a professional interpreter.
My family member is an adult and can speak English. Can they interpret for me?
Your family members should not interpret for you. They might not know the correct medical terms in English and interpreting your medical needs might be difficult, stressful, or uncomfortable for them. Medical professionals should never ask family or friends to interpret. Always ask for a professional interpreter.
What should I do if an interpreter is not provided at my appointment or if a medical professional refuses to provide an interpreter?
You may need to request an interpreter multiple times. If after multiple requests, a medical professional or medical agency is still not providing an interpreter, you have several options:
- You can consider asking to speak to a manager and repeat your request.
- You may ask to make a complaint that an interpreter is being denied to you.
- You may call a caseworker, if you have one, and ask them to advocate on your behalf.
If an interpreter is still being denied, you may ultimately need to decide whether you want to continue with that appointment. Remember, communication between medical professionals and patients is critical to good health care.
You may also consider:
- Making a formal complaint with the agency. All medical agencies are prohibited from retaliating against patients for making a complaint.
- Speaking with your caseworker about calling the agency together to advocate for future interpretation.
- Filing a formal complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (see here - https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/filing-a-complaint/complaint-process/index.html)
You can find links to “I Speak” cards by choosing your preferred language in this Help Center article, download the file to your phone or print it to keep in your wallet.