Is a telephonic interpreter better than a face to face interpreter?

The market for translating and interpreting is awash with new technology, which is great for patients and providers—when it works. As a primarily face to face interpreter, I have often heard doctors and nurses complaining about poor connection or sound quality when using a telephonic or video interpreter. Luckily, interpreter technology, along with broadband speeds, has come a long way in the last couple years and the technology works pretty darn well, with a few glitches.

However, given a choice between a telephonic and an in person interpreter, the overwhelming majority of doctors, nurses, and families will opt for the in person terp. Why is this the case? I would argue that it’s easier to fully execute my scope of practice as a certified medical interpreter if I am present during the encounter, where I can fully appreciate the surroundings and the nuances of the situation. I can also take cues from body language that will be lost over the phone. I can see everything that’s going on, and I can hear and be heard better than over a mic or speaker. Although the technology has improved, there is no exact substitute for a face to face interpreter (for now, anyway).

But is it really better to hire an interpreter to come all the way to the hospital just to communicate some simple information for 5 minutes, rather than getting an interpreter on the phone? Is it cost effective? Is it environmentally responsible? These are all relevant questions, and if you take a second to answer each one, it should be pretty clear what’s best for any given situation. Let’s take a look at each question, and the possible answers:

Certain situations will benefit more from an in person interpreter than others. Noisy environments with multiple speakers, such as rounds, can really benefit from having an interpreter present, as can sensitive topics like mental health and palliative care. For simpler conversations, like ordering meals, or asking a patient what their level of pain is every hour, you can be pretty confident that a telephonic interpreter will get the job done as well as one that is physically present.

So what about the cost? It’s a double edged sword. For short conversations, 15 minutes or less, a telephonic interpreter generally costs less. After this, there are diminishing returns, and a face to face interpreter is generally cheaper. Although a less significant factor, one may consider whether it’s environmentally a good idea to have an interpreter drive 30 minutes each way to interpreter only 30 minutes. Every situation will be different. Sometimes the choice is already made for you because there is no face to face interpreter available because of it’s any emergency or there is a lack of qualified interpreters for the language pair.

In the end, I would argue that the potential for an excellent interpretation is always better with a face to face interpreter, but the realities of cost and limited availability necessitate the use of telephonic interpretation. The good news is that the technology for remote telephonic and video interpreters is increasing by the day. I don’t know if we will ever see the day when face to face interpreters are completely replaced by remote interpreters, or even computerized interpreters, but we are certainly headed in that direction—and more high quality options on the table for interpreter services can only be a good thing for patients and providers alike.

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