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Queensland Health Interpreter Service - FAQ

Frequently asked questions

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For clients

For staff

Why can't I use my family or friends or bilinigual workers to interpret for me?

Queensland Health policy is to use interpreters who are NAATI accredited or recognised.

There are significant risks in communicating through unaccredited interpreters:

  • inaccuracy because you cannot be certain an unaccredited interpreter is competent in your language and English
  • possible withholding or distorting information because of family relationships or due to the emotional or sensitive nature of the issues at stake
  • possible inadequate communication because of lack of knowledge of interpreting techniques
  • staff unable to be assured that information necessary for safe and quality health care is being communicated appropriately and accurately
  • confidentiality standards may not be met.

These risks can lead to:

  • inappropriate health care decisions being made or decisions being made by someone other than the person receiving the health service
  • incorrect use of medications or attention to treatment details.

Given this, family and friends can be used only in very limited instances where there is no on-site or telephone interpreter available. Situations where this may occur could include medical emergencies.

Family and friends may be used for simple, day-to-day communications.

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Why can't my child interpret for me?

Children are not appropriate interpreters in any circumstance. This is because of the same reasons that family and friends cannot be used as interpreters (refer above). Using children as interpreters has the additional problem of potentially upsetting the authority relationships in the family.

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What is the difference between an interpreter and a translator?

An interpreter is someone who conveys an oral message or statement from one language to another.

A translator is someone who conveys written messages or statements from one language to another.

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When should an interpreter be engaged?

An accredited interpreter should be engaged when the information to be communicated is significant for health and/or health outcomes, the person has a Queensland interpreter card, the person requests an interpreter, or the person’s English language skills are assessed to be inadequate for the situation.

The specific health care events where interpreters should be engaged include:

Key phases of care

  • admission/intake
  • interviews to establish clinical histories
  • assessments, diagnosis and development of treatment plans
  • discussions seeking consent for surgery, invasive procedures, investigation, treatment and research
  • pre-operative and post operative instructions
  • informing people of results of investigations and procedures
  • providing information about medications
  • discharge procedures and referrals.

The following special circumstances

  • mental health assessment, diagnosis and treatment
  • counselling
  • psychological assessment
  • speech pathology
  • death of a person and bereavement counselling
  • seeking consent for autopsy
  • following the birth of a child with disability
  • seeking consent for organ donation
  • situations involving any suspected abuse, violence or assault
  • Patient Review and Mental Health Review Tribunals
  • complaint procedures
  • discussions concerning patient status, health insurance and accounts for services.

An example of a situation where an accredited interpreter is not required is during routine and ongoing renal dialysis.

Interpreters may be requested by reception and administration staff and staff providing direct health service delivery.

Interpreters may also be requested by management or staff undertaking community engagement or health promotion/community education.

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How do I identify if an interpreter is needed?

Some people may be unable to communicate in English at all or will have such minimal English proficiency that the decision to request an interpreter will be obvious. A person’s proficiency in English may indicate they may not understand medical terms such as informed consent or medication compliance. Some will bring a Queensland Government ‘I need an Interpreter card’. However, if there is any doubt, here are some simple tests to help you make your decision:

  • Ask a question that requires the person to answer in a sentence. Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or a no or a familiar question such as Where do you live?
  • Ask the person to repeat a message that you have just given in his/her own words.

Remember - the interpreter is there to enable you to do your job competently, not only for the client.

If you decide that an interpreter is required, you will need to discuss this with the person prior to arranging the interpreter. Consider engaging a telephone interpreter for this.

The Queensland Health Language Identification Card has been developed as a tool to help you identify a person’s language. The Language Indentification Card contains the following statement in 66 community languages: “Please point to your language. We will arrange an interpreter at no charge.”

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Why do I need to work with accredited interpreters?

Working with accredited interpreters ensures that you communicate through a trained, bilingual person, who is guided by a code of ethics, respects the confidentiality of the person, is impartial, accountable and strives for accuracy.

Working with an accredited interpreter should not only meet the client's needs, but also your duty of care obligations to understand and be understood by people receiving a health service from you. Health services must consider the potential legal consequences of adverse outcomes when using unaccredited people to ‘interpret’ if an accredited interpreter is available.

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What do I do if someone refuses the offer of an accredited interpreter?

Many people in the community are not aware of their right to access an accredited interpreter and may be unfamiliar with using accredited interpreters when accessing health services.

If a person indicates a preference to manage without interpreter support, indicates a preference to use a bilingual speaker for language support, or clearly identifies a preference not to use an accredited interpreter, staff should:

  • highlight the benefits of using accredited interpreters (e.g. accuracy and impartiality)
  • emphasise that the accredited interpreter is to assist you, the health professional, to access all the information you need to make a thorough assessment and diagnosis and to be confident that information provided to the person is clearly and accurately communicated and understood
  • stress that the interpreter has a professional obligation to maintain confidentiality and that any information discussed will not go outside of the room
  • indicate that the family member/friend is still able to be present as a support person without the additional burden of also having to undertake a role in aiding communication
  • communicate that you have an obligation to ensure effective communication through the use of an interpreter when required (e.g. duty of care, quality and safety).

It is preferable for an interpreter to be there for at least the first session. However, if this is refused, an interpreter should be renegotiated at the next appointment/meeting.

The reasons why people may refuse the offer of an accredited interpreter are many and varied and may relate to the level of comfort or trust an individual (participating in an interpreting session) has with an accredited interpreter. Sometimes refusal can be due to the person and interpreter knowing each other, particularly those who are members of small communities. Other reasons may include that the interpreter may not speak the same dialect (e.g. Egyptian Arabic rather than Sudanese Arabic), the interpreter being viewed as the wrong gender, or to have political or religious affiliations do not sit comfortably with the client.

Confirmation to use the interpreter service must be obtained from the client. Use of a telephone interpreter may be required to confirm acceptance and/or refusal of the service.

If a person indicates a clear preference for not using an accredited interpreter this should be clearly documented on Patient Progress Notes in their Medical Record or other relevant documentation.

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What are the risks of communicating through unaccredited interpreters?

There are significant risks in communicating through unaccredited interpreters:

  • inaccuracy because you cannot be certain an unaccredited interpreter is competent in both languages
  • possible withholding or distorting information because of family relationships or due to the emotional or sensitive nature of the issues at stake
  • possible inadequate communication because of lack of knowledge of interpreting techniques
  • upsetting the authority relationships in the family eg. by using children as interpreters
  • staff unable to be assured that information necessary for safe and quality health care is being communicated appropriately and accurately
  • confidentiality standards may not be met.

These risks can lead to:

  • inappropriate health care decisions being made or decisions being made by someone other than the person receiving the health service
  • incorrect use of medications or attention to treatment details
  • complaints and even litigation if accredited interpreters are not used.

Staff must consider the potential legal consequences of adverse outcomes when using unaccredited people to ‘interpret’ if an accredited interpreter is available.

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Last updated: 12 June 2012

What's new?

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Report on client perceptions of the quality of the Queensland Health Intepreter Service
A new report on the perceptions on clients on the quality of the Queensland Health Interpreter Service is now available.


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The blue interpreter symbol is the nationally recognised interpreter symbol.

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Complaints about health or other services

Do you have concerns about a government or non-government health service or are you unhappy with the way an issue has been handled? Do you think you have been treated unfairly or are you concerned about a decision or action of a health professional?

It is ok to complain, and there are organisations that are independent of the government that can help you, free of charge.

Go to the Queensland Independent Complaint Agencies' website for more information.