Having access to proper medical services depends on several factors and unfortunately, one of them may turn out to be the language you speak. Imagine that you are in a foreign country with no notion of the local language and you need some kind of medical help. The language barrier may be a reason that stops you from getting aspirin for your headache. 

Since a great number of the population in America does not speak English, the government has taken measures to ease their access to medical services. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act determines that each health care institution should provide professional medical interpretation to people who are unable to communicate in English. This covers both speakers of foreign language and users of sign languages.  

The Act was designed to improve the level of medical services and reduce mistakes made as a result of misunderstanding and communication failure. That goal is achievable when working with qualified medical interpreters who have knowledge and experience in the field and can be very useful to both the medical representative and the patient.  

Characteristics of a Good Medical Interpreter  

It is very important for the medical interpreter to be qualified to do the job. In order to achieve that, any interpreter needs to invest time and effort to polish their language skills in the right direction. There are several steps you need to complete in order to become a qualified medical interpreter. 

It is not sufficient simply to learn a foreign language in order to become an interpreter. It is also necessary to earn a bachelor’s degree in a related area – language studies, interpretation, social studies and the like. Then you attend a special accredited medical interpreter training course that gives you the basic idea of what it involves to be a medical interpreter. While certification in the field is not a must, it is a competitive advantage when looking for a job. You can become a certified medical interpreter if you apply with the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) or the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and successfully pass their exams.  

There are certain that make a medical interpreter attractive for health care institutions. Three of the most important ones are: 

  • Expert knowledge 

Knowing the specific vocabulary used in medical institutions is very important for a good medical interpreter. Terminology should be accurately rendered from one language into another in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. This is critical for the correct diagnosis and subsequent treatment of the patient. 

On the other hand, the medical interpreter should also be able to use simple words when speaking to the patient in order to make sure that they understand what they are being asked or told.  

  • Availability 

Quite often there is an urgent need for medical interpretation. That is why the availability of the service is very important. Many health facilities appoint in-house medical interpreters, while others use agencies, freelancers, or video remote interpretation (VRI). In any case, working as a medical interpreter means that you should be ready to work flexible hours and be available 24/7.  

  • Specific language combination  

Since Spanish is one of the most common foreign languages in the US, a medical interpreter speaking English and Spanish can easily find a job in the medical industry. In some cases, however, those who have a rare or specific language combination are more sought after as experts. It all depends on the region where the health care institution is located and what is the profile of their patients. 

If you are just starting your career as a medical interpreter, you might research the specific needs in your community and serve them best by adding the language that is spoken in your region.  

Should Family be used as Interpreters? 

In many cases, relatives or friends of the patient are used as interpreters when non-English speaking people are looking for medical assistance. Quite often these are children who are bilingual and can communicate in both English and the mother tongue of the patient. 

The practice of using family members as medical interpreters is not good for several reasons: 

  • The family member may have knowledge of both languages but is not familiar with the specific medical terminology and may have great difficulties interpreting certain words or phrases. This can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes, which in medicine can be fatal.  
  • The family member is emotionally-bound to the patient. The information about the health condition may upset, anger or distract them and affect their ability to interpret the message at all. In addition to that, the family member may be tempted to answer some questions instead of the patient and thus provide a wrong answer that can mislead the medical practitioner. 
  • The patient may feel uncomfortable speaking about their problems in front of a family member. This may lead to providing false or incorrect information to the practitioner in an attempt to hide some facts from their friends or relatives.  

While in certain cases an English-speaking relative or friend can help with getting medical care by interpreting for the patient and the doctor, it is better to leave that task to the experts. Accuracy is one of the important factors in interpretation, which in medicine plays a significant role. A qualified medical interpreter will help for the situation to be resolved much faster and with as little negative effects for both sides as possible.  

Types of Medical Interpretation  

Health care institutions need medical interpretation around the clock but often it is not possible to keep so many people as staff interpreters so that they are available at any time. Hence, there are two other modes of interpretation that can help in this case – over the phone interpretation and video remote interpretation services. 

We can conclude that a health care institution can use three types of medical interpretation services: 

  • On-site interpretation – The medical interpreter is physically present at the meeting between the doctor and the patient and helps with the communication by interpreting to both sides.  
  • Over the phone interpretation (OPI) – The medical interpreter is on the other side of the phone line and interprets to both sides using a phone connection. In this case, the medical interpreter can be located anywhere in the world. The service is often used in urgent situations or when no on-site interpreters are available.  
  • Video remote interpretation (VRI) – The medical interpreter is also not physically present but is still able to see the participants in the conversation via a monitor. VRI services help the interpreter to use the body language of the speakers as well in order to render the information exchanged more accurately.  

Each of the interpretation services facilitate communication between the health providers and their patients and keep mistakes due to miscommunication to a minimum. 

Medical interpreting is a vital part of the medical services provided nowadays. The interpreters help practitioners do their job quicker and more efficiently, while the patients feel more relaxed while talking in their own language. As a result of the professional work of medical interpreters, the overall level of medical service has increases.  

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