This article is about interpreting in the healthcare sector in Norway. Effective communication between patients and health personnel is vital for the provision of high-quality, patient- centered healthcare services. As Norway, like many other countries, becomes increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, language barriers and cultural misunderstandings present a significant long-term challenge in healthcare. It is now well established that the use of qualified interpreters significantly improves the quality of healthcare. Accordingly it is crucial that a qualified interpreter be available when necessary. Legal rules and guidelines state that health personnel are responsible for assessing whether the services of an interpreter are necessary. These documents offer few clues, however, about which criteria a healthcare worker should apply when deciding whether to book an interpreter, and in practice healthcare workers find it difficult to assess when an interpreter’s presence will be necessary.
The main aim of this article is to explore what the research literature has to say about this question. What are the main issues that research has focused on? Does research offer any answers as to exactly when an interpreter needs to be called?
Research concerning the use of interpreters in healthcare in Norway is still very limited. Nonetheless, in the past few years some studies and reports have been published. The main issues that have been discussed are: the interpreter’s roles and responsibilities, under-use of qualified interpreters in healthcare; and strategies employed by health personnel in order to cope with language barriers when not using an interpreter. Only some very general conclusions can be drawn from these studies. Little attention has been given to the question of how to decide when a qualified interpreter is required. Two important issues have scarcely been addressed in the context of healthcare in Norway: the level of the patient’s proficiency in Norwegian; and the extent of the language gap between the patient and the healthcare worker. Lack of knowledge on this topic is significant, as obviously the language gap is the principal cause of the need for language assistance in the first instance. Another consideration is the importance of the conversation: depending upon the seriousness of the situation, a healthcare worker must exercise judgment in deciding the extent to which accurate communication needs to be ensured. This question, at least in the context of healthcare personnel and their patients, should be addressed to groups other than researchers on interpreting; the question illustrates the need for an inter-disciplinary research strategy in order adequately to address issues related to interpreting in healthcare.