We spend a lot of time speaking of physician, nursing, social work, pharmacist expertise in palliative care. We often see and support formal training for volunteers. (www.volunteertrainingonline.com/hospice; www.hospicevolunteertraining.webs.com) We teach the importance of culturally competent care and use of interpreter services to enhance communication with patients and families of other cultures and with limited English. Studies have shown the miscommunication that occurs when interpreters are not used in medical encounters.

At the European Association of Communication in Healthcare (EACH) conference in Verona Italy the opening keynote speaker, Phyllis Butow, a psychologist and professor of psycho-oncology and medical communication, presented research that caused me pause and concern. Her research, conducted in Australia, demonstrated that our assumptions about accuracy of language transmitted to patients/families when interpreters are used may be flawed – especially when interpreters lack training in giving bad news, end-of-life care, etc.

Her interviews with interpreters also revealed that professional interviewers define their role as cultural (as well as language) interpreters. In doing so, “cancer” sometimes was described as “mass” or “tumor” according to her presentation. Interpreters expressed similar cultural biases and fear of giving bad news as many other healthcare professionals.

  • How often does this happen in North America, as it seems to in Australia?
  • How much training do medical interpreters in the US, Canada, and other countries receive in delivering bad news, end-of-life care, death and dying?

Mandating the presence of a medical interpreter may not be enough when it comes to improving cross-cultural and inter-language communication in palliative care scenarios: we need to include medical interpreters in our definition of interdisciplinary teams, provide them training (not just teach physicians and advance practice nurses how to work with interpreters) in giving bad news.