Not Just “Getting by”: Factors Influencing Providers’ Choice of Interpreters

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92 Scopus citations


Background: Providers consistently underutilize professional interpreters in healthcare settings even when they perceive benefits to using professional interpreters and when professional interpreters are readily available. Little is known about providers’ decision-making processes that shape their use of interpreters. Objective: To understand the variety of considerations and parameters that influence providers’ decisions regarding interpreters. Design: A qualitative, semi-structured interview guide was used to explore providers’ decision making about interpreter use. The author conducted 8 specialty-specific focus groups and 14 individual interviews, each lasting 60–90 minutes. Participants: Thirty-nine healthcare professionals were recruited from five specialties (i.e., nursing, mental health, emergency medicine, oncology, and obstetrics-gynecology) in a large academic medical center characterized as having “excellent” interpreter services. Approach: Audio-recorded interviews and focus groups were transcribed and analyzed using grounded theory to develop a theoretical framework for providers’ decision-making processes. Key Results: Four factors influence providers’ choice of interpreters: (a) time constraints, (b) alliances of care, (c) therapeutic objectives, and (d) organizational-level considerations. The findings highlight (a) providers’ calculated use of interpreters and interpreting modalities, (b) the complexity of the functions and impacts of time in providers’ decision-making process, and (c) the importance of organizational structures and support for appropriate and effective interpreter utilization. Conclusions: Providers actively engage in calculated use of professional interpreters, employing specific factors in their decision-making processes. Providers’ understanding of time is complex and multidimensional, including concerns about disruptions to their schedules, overburdening others’ workloads, and clinical urgency of patient condition, among others. When providers make specific choices due to time pressure, they are influenced by interpersonal, organizational, therapeutic, and ethical considerations. Organizational resources and guidelines need to be consistent with institutional policies and professional norms; otherwise, providers risk making flawed assessments about the effective and appropriate use of interpreters in bilingual health care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)75-82
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of general internal medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author gratefully acknowledges the support of Grant #1R03MH76205-01-A1 (Title: Providers’ Views of the Roles of Medical Interpreters) funded by National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014, Society of General Internal Medicine.


  • communication
  • healthcare interpreting
  • limited-English-proficiency
  • provider-patient communication


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