The co-construction of empathic communication in interpreter-mediated medical consultations: A qualitative analysis of interaction


  • Laura Theys KU Leuven, Ghent University
  • Cornelia Wermuth KU Leuven
  • Heidi Salaets KU Leuven
  • Peter Pype Ghent University
  • Demi Krystallidou University of Surrey


Empathic communication, medical interpreting, health communication, empathy, interpreter, communication barriers, emotions, illness experience.


Current interpreter training programs pay increasingly more attention to the intricacies of the clinical context, such as doctors and patients’ communicative goals. However, to date, the conduit model remains influential when it comes to interpreters dealing with other participants’ emotions and their own emotions in interpreter-mediated consultations (IMCs). Consequently, establishing a good doctor-patient relationship by means of empathic communication (EC) might be jeopardized in IMCs. During EC, patients express their emotional or illness experiences to which doctors convey their empathic understanding. This study aimed to assess how doctors, patients, and interpreters verbally co-construct EC and the interpreter’s effect on this process. We analyzed 7 authentic IMCs using the Empathic Communication Coding System, as previously adapted for IMCs. We identified empathic opportunities (EOs) and empathic responses (ERs) as expressed by patients/doctors, and as rendered by interpreters. Our results showed that EC is the result of an interactive and collaborative process among all participants in IMCs. That is, the interplay between participants’ communicative actions determines how patients’ expressed lived experiences are addressed in IMCs. Our findings suggest that interpreters hold a central position in this process as they initiated EC about the patient’s illness experience and exerted control over the ways in which statements were rendered (e.g., interpreters omitted and altered original statements). In addition, our results indicated that EC in IMCs might be compromised by doctors and interpreters’ communicative actions.