When Doctors Double as Medical Interpreters

An anthropological study published earlier this year in Sage Journals suggests that hospitals in the United States may be asking a bit extra of their Spanish-speaking doctors. The study, which was written and conducted by two researchers at UC Irvine’s Department of Chicano/Latino Studies, details the experience of 48 Latino doctors in Southern California, many of whom had been asked to double as medical interpreters in their workplace at some point during their career. The researchers placed an especial emphasis on the role that gender plays in the Latino doctors’ experience with being asked to interpret and translate medical communications for Spanish-speaking patients.

“In this article, we elucidate how gender shapes perceptions of authority and competence among the same pan-ethnic group, and we use deference and demeanor as an analytical tool to examine these processes,” the paper’s abstract reads.


The team of researchers placed an emphasis on gender in their study because of evidence found in numerous other investigations of race and gender discrimination in the medical field. Past studies have shown that women’s career trajectories tend to be more strongly impacted by such forms of discrimination than men — as such, the researchers set out to explore how race-based discrimination affected men and women differently, with an emphasis on things like microagressions and interactions with authority figures within the workplace.

One particularly interesting finding of the study was that Latina women in the medical field are frequently asked to perform work as interpreters in addition to their primary jobs as doctors or nurses. Not only were bilingual women expected to perform interpretation or translation work more frequently than their male counterparts, but the researchers also found that Latina women who pushed back on these requests were more likely to receive some sort of adverse response from other individuals in the workplace. For example, when Latina doctors explained that interpreting is not a part of their job as doctors, co-workers were more likely to view them as stubborn or unpleasant individuals to work with.

Hospitals across the country — and across the world even — have been criticized for lacking adequate medical interpretation services for patients who have limited proficiency in the regional language. Medical interpreters play an especially important role within the hospital because they are specially trained and certified to communicate about a broad range of medical topics in both languages, whereas bilingual doctors may not have access to the necessary medical terminology in both languages.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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