The Devil is in the Details: Interpreting and Specialization

Unsplash photo by Siora Photography
As I work toward acquiring certification as a court interpreter, I also make an effort to maintain my healthcare interpreter certification, while I continue to interpret in education. I also continue to translate and maintain my skills in the simultaneous, consecutive, and sight-translation modes of interpreting. As if that was not enough diversity, I also train and work in the various modalities (over-the-phone, video remote, remote simultaneous, video conferencing, and onsite). In a previous blog, I advocated for skill-based diversification to build a successful career. I highlighted how some skill diversification can be complimentary and help us stay relevant. In the last two weeks, I had an opportunity to renew my appreciation for subject matter specialization. 

Why Specialize?

When joining the ranks of healthcare interpreters in the United States, one of the things that I found most intimidating was the number of specialties in healthcare. Although most clinicians become generalist before they specialize, they are not as familiar with the intricacies (or details) of each other's specialties and often refer their patients to providers with specialized knowledge about a particular ailment to ensure the patient receives the best care.  

Pre-COVID, I attempted to accept assignments that were complimentary to each other. For example, when working on preparing a training related to interpreting in maternal fetal medicine, I would request and accept assignments in that specialty exclusively. I had the opportunity to research and apply what I had learned as I practiced my profession. However, the increase in remote interpreting utilization in healthcare due to COVID has made it more difficult for me to pick and choose healthcare interpreting assignments based on my preferred specialties. For many of my clients, onsite interpreting is not an option. I must login to a proprietary remote interpreting platform and receive assignments on-demand that can range from an appointment confirmation to a consult with a specialist. 

"The interpreter would like to ask for clarification, did you say Keppra?"

On a single day, I interpreted: 1. a treatment plan for a patient with a benign brain tumor who had recently received a new regimen to prevent seizures, 2. a follow-up with a care provider for a stroke patient with diabetes and a strict feeding, insulin, and medication regimen, and 3. an appointment confirmation for a COVID patient with asthma. Admittedly, I was not as prepared as I like to be for such a wide array of specialized terminology. On a single day I must have interpreted over 15 different medication names, often having to ask for repetition, clarification, and even spelling. The devil was truly in the details as it was the medication names that gave me the most trouble. My saving grace? Luckily, the providers and patients I interpreted for were familiar with the medication names, and much to my embarrassment, aided me (the interpreter) in relaying the medication names accurately. 

Although healthcare is one of my subject matter specializations, true preparation for each assignment still requires a lot of research and preparation. Even our colleagues who are full time interpreters at healthcare facilities and have the good fortune of being assigned to a single specialty, may encounter unfamiliar terminology, concepts, or procedures. Therefore, a key to specialization is not only repeated exposure and practice, but also preparation and strong encounter management strategies. Even those days where we seem to be completely off our interpreting or translation game, and have to look-up or clarify more than we would like to, serve as learning opportunities to prepare us for future assignments. 

What were my takeaways from my most recent unfortunate experience? I found a couple of resources for medication name lists that are now bookmarked on my browser and only one click away. 

List of seizure medications: 

List of asthma medications:

List of diabetes medications:

List of anxiety medications:

What experiences have made you appreciate the importance of subject matter specialization? What is your specialty? Share in the comments below.