5 Tips for Oncology Nurses Working With an Interpreter

By Stephanie DeMeyer, MA, Elaine S. DeMeyer, RN, MSN, AOCN®, BMTCN® - January 24, 2023

Communication in cancer care is critical for optimal patient outcomes. Good communication can build a trusting, professional, and therapeutic relationship with the patient and their caregivers. With effective communication, cancer survivors can take a more active role in their care. Oncology nurses can improve patient-centered cancer care by removing barriers such as language issues. Below are 5 tips, or best practices, for oncology nurses when communicating through an interpreter.

  1. Speak Directly to the Patient

You may be inclined to look at the interpreter while speaking, but the patient may perceive this as being rude. Instead, always face the patient directly, just as you would if there were no interpreter present. Looking at the patient shows respect and establishes the important patient-nurse relationship. In addition, it may be tempting to say things to the interpreter like, “Tell her that she’ll need to come back in a month,” or “ask them when the nausea started.” Instead, you should speak as if you are talking directly with the patient. Interpreters are there to provide understanding and facilitate communication, but they are not a part of the conversation.

  1. One Person Speaks at a Time

More than one person speaking at the same time (or in a quick succession) can cause confusion. This is particularly challenging when working with patients who use sign language interpreters as they must indicate who is speaking. Especially when patients have questions, you may feel like you should respond to simple yes or no questions as they come up in a conversation. However, the interpreters are holding the questions in their minds and now must also hold the answers. Avoid interrupting the interpreting process by waiting until the interpreter is finished.

  1. Allow Extra Time for Your Patient Interaction

When working with patients who use interpreters, remember they likely will need extra time. Avoid hurried behaviors like looking at your phone, the clock, or turning toward the door. Make sure your patients know they have as much time as they need to understand their care.

  1. Pause Between Complete Sentences or Thoughts

If you’re reviewing a lot of information, you may feel it is easier for the interpreter if you pause in the middle of your sentence to allow them to catch up. However, this disrupts the flow of interpreting and can cause frustration and confusion. Keep in mind that the grammar structure between English and the patient’s native language may be different, so it is best to complete your sentence and allow the interpreters to do their jobs.

  1. Consider Briefing the Interpreter Beforehand

If you have time, it can be helpful to provide interpreters with a list of terms you will use in conversation in advance. For example, if you discuss the side effects of a specific drug, provide the medical terms to interpreters first to allow them time to verify the translation online or with other interpreters. If you are teaching a class on chemotherapy, some interpreters may ask for your slides in advance. This pre-session preparation is important for more complex topics wherein the interpreter might not feel confident translating medical terms. For patients who use sign language, providing the spelling of terms can also be helpful.

A lack of English language skills or being deaf is not a reflection of low cognitive function, lack of education, or low health literacy. Instead, it is a communication issue. If you were a patient with cancer, you would want the explanation of your diagnosis and treatment plan to be in your own language. Your patients deserve the same. Using best practices in communicating through an interpreter can improve patient understanding, satisfaction, and outcomes.


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