In Healthcare, When Are Video Interpreters Preferable to Telephone Interpreters

There is no dispute that using an interpreter in a healthcare setting improves the quality of care for a limited English proficient (LEP) patient. Interpreters have long had a presence in clinical environments as a conduit of medical information. What began as a profession that once required a physical presence has morphed — correlating with advancements in technology and communication modalities — into one that can be conducted remotely.

Which on-demand mode is better, the telephone or video?

On-demand interpreting solutions like use of the telephone and video are now pervasive, with good reason — the demand for medical interpreters continues to increase. This is thanks in part to stricter regulations requiring hospitals that receive federal funding to provide qualified interpreters to patients who need them. With more choices in interpreting solutions comes a common dilemma healthcare professionals face: Which on-demand mode is better, the telephone or video?

There is no “I” in “team”

First things first: Remote interpreting will never entirely replace on-site interpreting. There is still a great need for interpretation where only face-to-face will do (think end-of-life care, complex trials, and highly sensitive subject matter).

Barry Slaughter Olsen, associate professor at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and co-president of InterpretAmerica, is also an interpreter and implores people to think of remote interpreting tools as an enhancement to the profession rather than a replacement. “Remote interpreting is here. It poses both challenges and opportunities. If we focus exclusively on what remote interpreting will replace in our profession — or what we stand to lose — it will seem threatening and scary. If we ask ourselves how it can fit into our professional practice together with all of the other modes of interpreting, we stand to gain and will be able to help shape the future of international communication.”

Related: Why Healthcare Providers Need to Embrace Remote Interpreting


On-demand interpreting solutions: video or telephone

Returning to answer the original question, about which on-demand interpreting option is better in healthcare, there really is no right answer. But there are certain clinical scenarios where one mode might be preferred over the other. Let’s begin with video:

  1. While interacting with children: Kids — especially young kids — can have a hard time communicating on the phone, especially if their attention is divided by what’s going on around them in person. It can be more helpful for children to work with an interpreter they can see when they are speaking directly with a provider.
  2. When patient education involves visual components: A video interpreter is best suited if a provider is using equipment or teaching aids to administer instructions or give the patient demonstrations (e.g., for physical therapy or insulin injections), since an over-the-phone interpreter will not be able to see what is being demonstrated.
  3. When talking with patients who are hard of hearing: Individuals who are hard of hearing often rely — to varying degrees — on lip reading to aid them in comprehension. Video interpreters are a better option than telephone interpreters in these situations.
  4. When several LEP individuals are present: Telephone interpreting can be most effective in private conversations between a single patient and the provider. When the provider is communicating with multiple patients at the same time or when more than one LEP individual is present (e.g., the patient and their family members), a video interpreter might be more advantageous.

Related: CLI’s Video Remote Interpreting Language List Doubles to Keep Up with Demand

Now, when is over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) more appropriate? In addition to routine patient interactions (such as front desk inquiries, patient registration, or quick checkups), here are examples of other situations that might be better served by OPI:

  1. In contact center environments: Most health systems field a lot of phone calls. Since most phone calls are just that, with both parties already communicating exclusively over the phone, an on-site or video interpreter isn’t a practical option — but OPI would be the perfect solution. And as telemedicine continues to expand, more healthcare systems than ever are handling patient calls for everything from appointment reminders and billing questions to nurse/physician advice lines and mental health crisis lines.
  2. When cost is a consideration: In a perfect world, cost would not be a consideration in the delivery of healthcare. In reality, it can be, and OPI might cost a fraction of on-site and VRI alternatives. Don’t let limited budgets deter you from offering the same level of professional, qualified interpreters, regardless of modality.
  3. For a larger breadth of languages: Most language service providers (LSPs) only offer VRI in a limited number of languages, which typically reflect those in high demand (e.g., Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, etc.). It’s inevitable that your facility will encounter many patients who speak languages beyond the top 20, and you’ll need to be prepared. OPI is available in hundreds of languages on demand, including languages of lesser diffusion.
  4. When patient preferences are at play: It’s not uncommon for patients to prefer not having visual interaction with an interpreter. This might be driven by religious, cultural, or individual preferences; the sensitivity of the health matter discussed; or the nature of the examination involved. The relative anonymity of an OPI interpreter can be a welcome alternative in these instances.

Most healthcare systems have a language access policy in place, and ideally this will contain guidance on which modality of interpreting services they recommend staff should use in a variety of situations. Your LSP should also be able to offer you assistance in honing a strong, up-to-date language access policy to best serve your LEP patients.

No matter which on-demand interpreting solution you choose, CLI has the experience and qualifications to ensure you’re getting the most out of your language services. Have any questions about OPI, VRI, or language access policies? Contact us — we’d love to hear from you!

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