A day of hospital interpreting

The big cog, the small cog, and the control tower
Terese Weiss, RSLI and staff interpreter shares her experiences of working in large London hospitals.
Hospital interpreting can be enormously rewarding and challenging – both professionally and personally. Ultimately, you facilitate communication at important moments in patients’ healthcare and are part of the larger machinery that provides this service. You may only be a small cog, but an important one, as I will show in this piece.
When covering hospital bookings I work very closely with Caroline, the medical booking officer at Clarion. She is effectively my air traffic control tower. She is the multi-tasking centre that has the overview of incoming bookings, allocates and juggles them about as they run to time (or not), are changed or arrive with short notice.
Typically, the hospital will make a block booking for a set number of hours, which may or may not cover one or more appointments with different patients. Some hospital trusts operate across different sites. This means that I may find myself going from the one to the other and back again within the same slot – or, sometimes, be found in my favourite café filling the gap before the next appointment. Some days it can take me 20 minutes to get from appointment A to appointment B, other days the crowd disperses as I walked through as if by magic, the lift arrives just as I approach with no one else in it and the tube doors open just as I step onto the platform. There are other shortcuts that you discover as you go along: piggy-backing access with staff on routes marked ‘staff only’, the speedy little staff lift hidden behind the stairs, the back entrances connecting neighbouring wings, etc. These are the operating secrets behind my code name, Elasti-girl, when calling in to Control Tower.

As we all know from our own trips to GPs, dentists, etc. appointments rarely run as clockwork. Lists might be overbooked, complicated appointments take longer than expected, patients get stuck in traffic, the doctor is stuck in the faulty lift (yes, a true example!), you name it. Keeping Caroline informed of any delays is therefore important. If a booking looks likely to overrun, another interpreter might be able to cover the next appointment during their gap or a patient who does not attend (DNA) frees you up to cover a last minute booking where no interpreter had been booked in the first place. So, if I finish early, and especially after the last appointment in a block, I check in with the control tower.

Apart from the intermittent updates to Control, as a small cog I move the big cogs by kindly reminding staff to book interpreters and notify the agency when appointments are moved, and note these on my timesheet as a heads-up to Caroline, so she can check the matching bookings are received. Noting the waiting/start/end times also enables Caroline to better schedule appointments within a block and reason with the hospital for different timings if needed. The same goes for DNAs as these need reporting to some higher cog-manager elsewhere and will hopefully be rebooked at a later date.

So, in summary, the interpreting aside, a day of interpreting in hospitals may involve some fun elasti-moves and flexible spinning, but when I head home after the last appointment, I always have the rewarding feeling that I did my bit to make the bigger machinery run that little bit smoother.

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