On-Site Healthcare Interpretation During and After COVID

The challenges posed by COVID-19 have highlighted pre-existing problems that need to be addressed.
On-Site Healthcare Interpretation During and After COVID - Blog Post Featured Image

COVID-19 impacted every industry in some way, but the healthcare industry was forced to reshape. Interpreters in medical facilities were particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Traditionally, healthcare interpreters have provided on-site services to facilitate communication between patients and their families, as well as between healthcare professionals of different languages. However, COVID-19 made in-person communication unsafe.

Today, we look at the effects of COVID-19 on healthcare interpretation and how this may continue to change the landscape in the future.

Interpretation in Healthcare

First, let’s briefly review how interpretation is provided and accessed in healthcare.

In general, interpretation can be defined as converting spoken statements from one language to another. In healthcare, interpretation occurs between a patient or their family and different members of the healthcare team.

Patients who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have a limited grasp of English may require the use of an interpreter in order to communicate effectively with their healthcare team. If the patient doesn’t understand what the doctor is saying, they may be unable to make informed decisions about their care.

This miscommunication can lead to poorer health outcomes and a greater risk of complications. Likewise, if the doctor is having trouble understanding the patient’s symptoms or concerns, it can lead to misdiagnosis or delayed treatment.

Virtual Meetings and Events

Interpretation plays a vital role in virtual meetings and events, including functions such as training sessions, webinars, or conferences. While COVID-19 continues to cause cancellations of countless face-to-face meetings and events, virtual gatherings have become part of the “new normal”.

How Has COVID-19 Impacted Interpretation?

As mentioned earlier, one of the most significant changes we faced during COVID-19 was the challenge of on-site interpretation due to the need for social distancing and enhanced safety protocol at hospitals and other medical facilities.

This had a significant impact on patients’ quality of care; studies have shown that patients with access to interpretation services have better health outcomes. As the pandemic progressed and cases continued to rise, it became clear that interpretation services were still needed and that on-site interpretation was problematic. The predicament led to a shift towards virtual interpretation, which can be accomplished in three ways:

1. Over-the-Phone Interpretation (OPI)

Over-the-phone interpretation (OPI) is a common and convenient way to access interpretation services. It can be used for both scheduled and on-demand interpretation needs. With OPI, the interpreter is connected to the call via a three-way call, and they interpret what is being said between the parties on the call.

While OPI is an excellent option for many situations, it does have its limitations. For example, it may not be ideal for longer conversations or more complex topics because it can be challenging to keep track of who is saying what. Other tricky situations in which OPI may not be ideal include when one person cannot access working phones, or when a patient is hard of hearing.

2. Video Remote Interpretation (VRI)

The most popular type of virtual/remote interpretation is video remote interpretation (VRI). VRI uses video conferencing technology to connect the interpreter with the parties on the call. It allows for more natural interaction, as everyone can see each other and use body language and other nonverbal cues.

VRI is a good option for most situations, but legislation sometimes gets in the way. For example, patient-doctor confidentiality might be violated if the interpretation occurs on an unencrypted platform video conferencing platform — though some platforms like Zoom are taking the initiative to implement HIPAA modules for improved safety. It’s important to work with an interpretation provider who understands the regulations surrounding confidentiality when interpreting within healthcare.

3. Remote Simultaneous Interpretation (RSI)

Remote simultaneous interpretation (RSI) is the most advanced form of virtual interpretation. It uses specialized equipment and software to allow the interpreter to interpret in real-time without delay.

This is the closest you can get to having an on-site interpreter without actually being in the same room. RSI is ideal for events like conferences or webinars, where there are multiple speakers and a large audience.

It works by streaming the event’s audio to the interpreter, who then interprets it and streams their interpretation back to the audience.

What Are the Long-Term Outcomes of On-Site to Virtual Interpretation in Healthcare?

The answer to that question lies on a spectrum of pros and cons. On the one hand, the pandemic has forced the healthcare industry to explore new technologies and ways of working that could have lasting positive impacts. The challenges posed by COVID-19 have highlighted pre-existing problems that need to be addressed, including the use of family members as ad hoc interpreters, and even the use of minors under 18 years old as interpreters, which is illegal.

On the other hand, the pandemic has also created new challenges and put additional strain on an already overburdened healthcare system. There are pros and cons to both on-site and virtual interpretation in healthcare. Let’s take a look at some of the key points to understand the debate a little better.

What Advantages Does Virtual Remote Interpretation (VRI) Have?

While on-site interpretation is preferred in some cases, VRI has many advantages.


With VRI, you get extra value for the service thanks to the on-demand availability of interpreters. Unlike on-site interpretation, VRI allows people of all linguistic backgrounds to access interpreters who speak the languages they need. Even if that interpreter is across the globe, VRI makes it possible to ensure patients in need always have interpretive services available.


One advantage of VRI is that it is more cost-effective than on-site services. You don’t have to pay for the interpreter’s travel expenses, and they can often work from home. This can be a considerable saving for healthcare businesses, especially if you need to use interpretation services regularly.


Another advantage of VRI is that it is more flexible. It is easier to quickly find an interpreter who speaks your language when you are not restricted to those who live near you. That’s a big advantage for less common languages or businesses that need to use interpretation services on an ad-hoc basis. In areas where there is a shortage of interpreters, VRI can be a lifesaver. It can also provide interpretation services outside of regular office hours.

COVID-19 Safety

Patients with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19—cancer patients, those receiving dialysis, and organ transplant recipients. For these patients, even a short hospital stay can be dangerous.

Many have elected to receive treatment at home instead, where they can minimize their exposure to the virus. This exodus has heightened the need for VRI in the healthcare industry, as it makes providing interpretation services while maintaining social distancing all the more possible.

Shorter Wait Times

The staff shortage plaguing the healthcare industry is another factor that has led to an increase in the use of VRI. With fewer staff members on hand, patients are often left waiting for long periods of time.

This can be frustrating and even dangerous for those who need urgent care. For example, if you only have one Spanish interpreter on-site in the hospital and several Spanish-speaking patients need interpretation services, the wait time for each patient will be significantly increased.

VRI can help to alleviate this problem by providing remote professionals, according to demand.

When is On-site Interpretation Preferred?

There are a few cases in which on-site interpretation is still the best option. These situations usually arise when the topic of discussion is very sensitive; for example, when a patient is receiving a terminal diagnosis and precise interpretation is needed. In these cases, on-site interpretation helps the interpreter maintain the patient’s attention and provide an accurate interpretation.

There are also cases where the use of video conferencing technology is not possible or practical. For example, if a patient is in a rural area with poor internet connectivity, VRI might not be possible.

How To Choose the Right Interpreter

If you’re in need of interpretation services in healthcare, choosing the right interpreter is essential. Here are a few tips:

Seek Accreditation

First, make sure that the interpreter is qualified and experienced. They should be familiar with medical terminology and the specific needs of healthcare interpretation. Medical jargon can be difficult to understand, even for experienced interpreters. So, it’s important to choose a trained and competent interpreter and, ideally, one who has a medical interpretation certification.

Look at the Virtual Setup

If you go the digital route, take a look at the virtual setup. Is the interpreter using high-quality equipment? Do they have a good internet connection? These factors can impact the quality of the interpretation. Make sure that the interpreter is comfortable with technology, and that the technology is easy for the healthcare staff and/or patients to use too.

Consider Your Needs

Finally, think about your specific needs. Maybe you’re short a few interpreters in specific languages, or perhaps you’re looking for interpreters who can work odd hours. Alternatively, you may want to back up your existing services.

For example, if you need interpretation for a Deaf patient, you’ll want to make sure that the interpreter is competent in sign language. Likewise, if you’re using VRI in a mental health setting, you’ll want to choose an interpreter who is experienced in discussing sensitive topics and handling crisis situations virtually.

The Future of Healthcare Interpretation

As the healthcare industry continues to grapple with the challenges posed by COVID-19, Virtual Remote Interpretation will help bridge the communication gap to improve the quality of care for patients all over the world.

While many healthcare providers were already providing a hybrid approach combining both on-site and VRI, we are likely to see an even greater uptick in on-site and VRI being used side-by-side to provide the best possible interpretation services. Quick and easy appointments with a remote interpreter could be used to supplement the more serious on-site appointments that are currently being used.

Why Choose PGLS?

Simple. PGLS provides high-quality on-site or VRI services. We have a team of experienced and qualified interpreters who are trained to meet the specific needs of healthcare interpretation.

Additionally, we offer translation services for medical documents. This can come in handy when you need to translate a patient’s medical history, insurance information, patient portal, or patient app. We bring to the table:

  • Over 200 languages
  • A large team of interpreters
  • Prestigious awards and recognition
  • Interpretation services
  • Translation services
  • Language training

PGLS: Healthcare Interpreters That Truly Understand Your Needs

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the interpretation industry. On-site interpretation was no longer safe during the first waves, and virtual arrangements became the new norm. The shift to virtual interpretation has led to some challenges, but it has also opened up new opportunities.