Diving into Medical Interpretation Ethics

July 17, 2019 By

On a crisp spring morning in March, we kicked off deaf history month with a phenomenal day-long workshop to sharpen our skills in medical interpretation and ethics. Almost a hundred eager interpreters gathered at Gallaudet University on March 9 to learn from industry leader and author, Dr. Robyn Dean, a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.

Sponsored by Ad Astra, Inc. and the Potomac Chapter of the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf (PCRID), this wasn’t your typical workshop where participants could sit back and passively absorb simple tips and tricks of the trade. As the coffee started kicking in, Dr. Dean rose to the front of the room and challenged us to reexamine commonly held, rigid views of the interpreter as merely a vehicle to facilitate communication. Instead, we were asked to consider the interpreter as a collaborator who must frequently apply professional judgement to overcome ethical dilemmas, especially in healthcare settings.

Ethical decision-making comes into play when competing solutions could be right. The interpreter must use judgment and context to determine which solution is more right.” -Dr. Robyn Dean

This compelling idea dives into the gray area of medical interpretation — where the Code of Ethics doesn’t always provide answers — and upends traditional industry ideas about the interpreter as one who does not think, deliberate, or make decisions during the course of a job.

A hushed silence enveloped the room, then whispers. A few eyebrows were raised. It was clear that Dr. Dean had moved us out of our comfort zone and would need to convince this experienced room of professionals to abandon deeply entrenched beliefs about ethics, particularly the view that good interpreters must take the self out of the equation and establish rigid boundaries between them and the client.

“As an ASL interpreter, I really appreciated seeing someone articulate the ethical juggling act of balancing professional neutrality and the desire to remain an ally to the community without whom I wouldn’t have a career,” said Adam Maynard, ASL Interpreter for Ad Astra. “It was inspiring to see someone clearly so passionate about her subject. She spoke with great authority and experience while also engaging the audience and welcoming any disagreement as a starting point for conversations.”

Throughout the day, the workshop offered interactive, hands-on learning, and the shift in paradigm started to make sense. Medical interpretation is a specialized field that challenges interpreters every day. New situations, and people who are thrust into the most emotional situations of their lives, require interpretive services that fall outside the boundary of descriptive ethics, or what people think is “right.” The code does not cover every situation interpreters might face. In healthcare settings, the smart interpreter moves effortlessly between assignments, collaborating with clients and healthcare professionals to evaluate each unique interaction. Their decision-making is guided by a sense of morals, competency and professional development.

“Our interpreters and translators bridge the communication divide, enhance human connection and help people navigate life’s most important moments,” said Lena Petrova-Toolsie, Ad Astra’s CEO. “At Ad Astra, we prioritize continuing education to keep our skills on the forefront of emerging industry trends. And that’s a good thing for our clients and our cadre of talented interpreters.”