Female provider filling out a medical questionnaire for her non-English-speaking patient.

Medical Questionnaires: Their Importance in Patient Care and How to Maneuver Them as a Medical Interpreter

The global health emergency has highlighted the importance of remote interpretation. We all know that because of interpreters, patients around the country have continued to receive lifesaving medical attention remotely. We have also seen many interpreters make the jump from in-person interpreting to remote interpreting because of the shutdowns that took place almost a year ago.

Our quality assurance team has been sharing tips on how to make the transition smoother for those who are newer to remote interpreting (see: How to Prepare for a Remote Interpreting Session Like an Expert). We want to continue to build on those tips by diving into specific situations that may come up in medical interpreting calls. In this post, we want to turn our focus to medical questionnaires.

What are medical questionnaires?

If you are a seasoned medical interpreter, you have probably provided interpretation assistance during a preoperative consultation or a post-surgery appointment that follows up on the patient’s procedure outcome. These interactions can include medical questionnaires — a series of detailed medical questions that look for very specific information about the patient’s condition and medical history.

Because the provider often reads these questionnaires out loud, it may be especially challenging to look up unknown medical terms or even keep up with the pace of the questions being asked.

Our QA team recently put together some considerations to keep in mind during these calls. We hope these tips will help you navigate these call with ease and precision.  


Sometimes medical questionnaires are fast-paced interactions between the medical provider and the patient. This is why, even for the most seasoned medical interpreter, it can be challenging to keep up with it all. However, it is important to slow down. Interpreters must have some time to process the information accurately and completely. Luckily, you can rely on interpreter protocol to request shorter segments presented at a slower pace. Just simply ask.

Example: “This is the interpreter speaking. Would you please provide the information in shorter segments for accuracy of interpretation?”

Avoid assumptions

Remote medical interpreters don’t always have a full picture of the patient’s medical history. In fact, for widely spoken languages, like Spanish, multiple interpreters may have helped a patient during one specific medical event. This is why interpreters should always remain neutral and avoid any assumptions about the patient’s condition or plan of care. 

Interpreters should avoid redirecting the patient to answer in a specific format (e.g., yes or no), and should also avoid asking the patient to stay on subject if they decide to go off topic or provide redundant information. Remember only the provider with the full medical picture can decide what information is redundant and what information is relevant.

Medical interpreters, by nature, want to help, but the extent of their assistance should be limited to language expertise and culture brokering.

Pay attention to the details

Female provider looking through a microscope at the details of a specimen.

The goal of medical questionnaires is to gather important medical information in order to inform a patient’s treatment. Medical interpreters help achieve this goal by remaining accurate at all points in the conversation. Because these interactions will typically include medical conditions, medication names and dosages, and care instructions, interpreters should have their tool kit ready for use at any given moment during the call.

Clarify any information or medical term that you are not sure about. It’s never OK to skip a condition or a medication name. Instead, ask for a spelling when needed, and look up information quickly and effectively by having your online glossaries bookmarked and ready to go.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to use interpreter protocol when you are unfamiliar with a term. This can happen to anyone. Follow the suggestions below for unknown medical terminology:

This is the interpreter. Please allow me a moment to look up a term.”


This is the interpreter. Would you kindly spell that for me?” (Look up the word as it’s being spelled out to you.)

Developing these skills will take many hours of practice and self-assessment, but once you’ve learned them, you will be able to handle almost any situation that you encounter as a remote medical interpreter.

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