Ask A Magnet Nurse: How Interpreter Phones Help Patients And Staff

Jonathan Sawers, RN, Critical Care Unit, St. Joseph’s Hospital

SMART LIVING: What are the interpreter phones and how are they used to treat patients?

JONATHAN SAWERS: Interpreter phones are a language translation service that we use to help treat patients who do not have English as their first language and who may be facing a communication barrier because of it. The network is called Cyracom. They provide translation for more than 150 different languages, are available 24/7, and are endorsed by the American Hospital Association. There is a dual handset, one for the patient and one for the nurse or doctor. This connects both the patient and the nurse to the interpreter, right there in the patient’s room, just as in a regular phone call.

SL: Is the service needed for medical terminology or for cultural understanding?

JS: The primary reason for the phones is to have someone who is trained in medical terminology and who can explain the medical significance of the treatments that are being given to the patient. Even if the patient has a family member who can translate for them, the phones are still necessary for those reasons. But they are also excellent in helping with cultural understanding for both the staff and the patient.
SL: In what way?

JS: Well, for example, we recently had a patient who did speak some English but it was very broken. He was from Haiti and his native language was Haitian-Creole. At first, he did not understand why we needed to give him medication. Actually, he did not understand why he was even experiencing any symptoms until we were able to have the interpreter explain it to him. But he also refused to eat anything at first, and we couldn’t understand why until we spoke with the interpreter.

SL: What did you learn from the interpreter?

JS: We learned that our usual way of bringing food to patients, presenting them with a tray and removing the tops from the plates, was considered rude. In Haiti, if you present someone with a container of food, they uncover it. If you uncover it, it’s basically your food at that point. It would be like me taking a bite of an apple and then handing you the apple to eat. Once we learned that, we let him uncover his food and his eating was no longer an issue.

SL: So the presence of the interpreter helped to make the patient feel better emotionally along with helping the nurses treat him physically?

JS: Yes, I think talking to someone that spoke his native language established a sense of security for the patient. He became more at ease when he was speaking with an interpreter. And for us, the interpreter’s understanding of the culture as a whole was an incredible help beyond just the language barrier.
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