Which Is Better for Healthcare: Video or Phone Interpreters?

Close-up of headset and computer an interpreter uses for video or phone sessions in healthcare

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

On-demand interpreting solutions (which Nimdzi refers to as “virtual interpreting technology”) like 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?

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

Honestly, 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 remote interpreting (VRI).

Best scenarios for video interpreters

While interacting with children

African American boy wearing a denim collared shirt and smiling

Young children can have a hard time communicating on the phone. This is especially true if their attention is divided by what’s going on around them in person. Working with an interpreter they can see when they’re speaking directly with a provider can be more helpful.

When patient education involves visual components

A video interpreter is best suited for situations where a clinician needs to use teaching aids or charts, educate the patient (e.g., physical therapy exercises, blood glucose monitoring, etc.), or perform longer, more complicated procedures such as an ultrasound or breathing study. A telephone interpreter would not be the best choice in these scenarios because they would not be able to see what the clinician is demonstrating.

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 in comprehension. Video interpreters are a better option than telephone interpreters in these situations.

When several non-English-speaking individuals are present 

Telephone interpreting is effective in private conversations between a single patient and provider. When the provider is communicating with more than one LEP individual (e.g., the patient and their family members), a video interpreter is more advantageous.

Learn More about CLI’s Video Remote Interpreting Services

Best scenarios for phone interpreters

Now, when is over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) more appropriate? In addition to short, routine interactions (e.g., front desk inquiries), here are examples of other situations that might be better served by OPI.

In contact center environments

Most health systems field a lot of phone calls. And since both parties are already communicating over the phone, an on-site or video interpreter isn’t practical — but OPI would be the perfect solution. 

And as telemedicine continues to expand, more healthcare systems are handling patient calls for everything from appointment reminders and billing questions to nurse/physician advice lines and mental health crisis lines.

When cost is a consideration

Several coins from different countries on a table

In a perfect world, cost would not be a consideration in the delivery of healthcare. In reality, it often is, 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.

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 to fill those gaps. Luckily, many LSPs offer OPI in hundreds of languages on demand, including languages of lesser diffusion.

When patient preferences are at play

It’s not uncommon for patients to prefer a non-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.

Learn More about CLI’s OPI Services

Most healthcare systems have a language access policy in place. Ideally, this will contain guidance on which interpreting modality they recommend staff should use and when. Your LSP should also be able to help you hone a strong, up-to-date language access policy.

No matter which on-demand interpreting solution you choose, CLI has the experience, qualifications, and technology to ensure you’re getting the most out of your language services.

Interested in learning more about OPI and VRI?

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