Medical interpreters play an invaluable role in helping patients and medical practitioners speaking different language understand each other. The services provided by the medical interpreter are crucial for finding the right diagnosis and determining the treatment. While the interpreters facilitate the overall communication process, they also help patients feel less frustrated because of the language barrier and help them feel calm and comfortable. Therefore, it is very important to build a relation of trust and openness between the interpreter and the clients. 

become medical interpreter

A professional medical interpreter bridges the gap between patients and healthcare providers to make sure that the inability to speak English will not stand on the way of proper healthcare. To do their job efficiently, medical interpreters need to be fluent in both English and another foreign language, to be familiar with the medical terminology in both language and to know how to react to emergency situations and behave in specific circumstances. Last, but not least they need to have a special qualification and preferably national certification. 

If you are fluent in more than one language besides English and you have great communication skills plus a passion to help others, the profession of the medical interpreter may be the right for you. In the guide below, you can find all the necessary information on how to become one and what to expect from the job.

What is Medical Interpreting? 

There are several benefits and challenges of being an interpreter and working in healthcare adds a few additional nuances to the job. The most significant element is the working environment and the sensitivity of the parties involved.  

Medical interpreters serve as the connection between patients and healthcare providers by accurately rendering spoken word between the two parties from the source into the target language and vice versa. Quite often they are perceived as a mediator and clarifier of the situation in addition to simply facilitating the communication. 

In order to be good in medical interpretation, the interpreter needs to have a profound knowledge of the medical terminology of both the languages included in their language combination. The exceptionally high level of mastering the languages is also a must. In addition to that, the medical interpreter should be able to properly understand body language and pay attention to facial expressions in order to fully grasp the message the person needs to convey.  

While the interpreters should be aware of the medical terminology, they need to keep in mind that most of the patients are not familiar with the terms used by medical staff and should be ready to explain the meaning in order to facilitate understanding. Sometimes, the medical interpreter should act as the advocate for the patients if this is necessary.  

In addition to being socially aware, medical interpreters should adhere to a national code of ethics for interpreters in healthcare and to national standards of practice for interpreters in health care. 

Medical interpreters work in different areas and across various healthcare institutions besides hospitals. The service is offered in mental health clinics, dental clinics, and rehabilitation facilities as well.

Types and Modes of Medical Interpreting 

There are different types and modes of interpreting that a client can choose from depending on the specific occasion, their needs and budget. Medical interpreting offers the same options for patients and medical practitioners.  

There are two modes of medical interpretation provided by professional interpreters: 

  • Simultaneous interpretation 

In this mode, the interpreter interprets the conversation immediately without any breaks and pauses. The interpreter speaks as they listen to the client talking. This method is mostly preferred for conferences and large presentations. Its main advantage is that it saves time as the communication goes without any interruption.  

  • Consecutive interpretation  

When interpreting in a consecutive mode, the interpreter listens to a chunk of information in one language and then renders it in the other language. The speaker and the interpreter take turns to speak. The interpreter may take notes while listening to the speaker in order to make sure that any figures or other details are correctly interpreted. The speaker should not continue for more than 15 minutes as then the interpretation may lose some of the accuracy and details. In medical interpretation, the exchange usually goes sentence by sentence or in smaller chunks. The main benefit of consecutive interpreting is that the interpreter may ask the speaker some questions for additional clarification in order to be absolutely accurate in rendering the message. The fact that it takes more time to finish a conversation may be seen as a little inconvenience.  

In a medical setting, consecutive interpreting is the preferred mode used for communication between patients and medical representatives when there is a language barrier.  

When it comes to the different types of medical interpreting, there are three types of services that the interpreter can offer: 

  • On-site interpreting 

When the interpreter is physically present at the meeting between the patient and the medical representative, we talk about on-site medical interpreting services. The interpreter has the opportunity to both see and hear the parties, which facilitates the process. Non-verbal language and facial expressions contribute to conveying a clearer message. Personal interaction enhances accuracy rates. In some cases, however, the physical presence of the medical interpreter is not possible and hence the medical facility can use one of the services below to cover its needs for interpretation.  

  • Over-the-phone interpreting 

With over the phone interpreting (OPI) services the interpreter facilitates the communication between the parties by interpreting remotely using a phone. In this case, the interpreter relies only on the words they hear and cannot make use of visual clues. This means that the interpreter should be a great listener and if possibly able to catch different nuances in the intonation of the speaker that can help with conveying the message. There are certain pros and cons of over-the-phone interpreting that are valid for a medical setting as well. The best advantage is that the service offers professional interpreting services 24/7, which means that the medical facility has access to qualified interpreters whenever they need them. The service is also quite suitable for emergency phone lines, such as 911.  

  • Video Remote Interpreting  

Another remote interpreting option is the Video Remote Interpreting (VRI), which is gaining popularity because of the possibilities it offers. While the medical interpreter is not physically present at the meeting, they are able to see the patient and the medical practitioner, which allows them to make use of the non-verbal communication between them as well. In general, it is a better option than over-the-phone interpreting in case the available technology allows it.  

All of these interpreting services are useful for medical facilities that need to treat non-English speaking patients. There are different circumstances that can determine which one to be used.

How to Qualify as a Medical Interpreter

If you are an interpreter who has decided to specialize in medical interpreting, there are a few details that you need to know and several steps to follow. Having a bachelor’s degree in interpretation, in a foreign language or in another field is always a plus. It is possible to work as an interpreter without a college degree, however, be prepared that many agencies or institutions will require one. 

To become a medical interpreter, you need to complete a special accredited medical interpreter training course. It should cover a minimum of 40 hours. The training programs should be accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies and by the Commission for Medical Interpreter Education. 

In order to enroll in such a program, you need to pass an oral exam proving your proficiency in the languages you speak. Some programs may require evidence of your knowledge of the languages and ask for school transcripts that show where you have attended high school or college and which classes in the languages you have taken.  

You can find such accredited medical interpreting training programs offered by interpreting agencies. It is a good idea to enroll in a program offered by a local agency so that you face higher chances of employment there afterwards. Most of the agencies prefer to work with interpreters that have taken a course with them over those who were trained elsewhere.  

Take a note that some training programs may be more highly valued and accepted by both interpreting agencies and medical facilities. You can make some research to see if this is valid for your region and then enroll in such a program. 

At the end of the accredited medical interpreter training course you will receive a certificate of completion, which officially makes you a medical interpreter.  

Do Medical Interpreter Need Certification?  

The certificate you hold after attending an accredited medical interpreter training course allows you to work as a medical interpreter, however, it does not substitute the national accreditation. Becoming a certified medical interpreter enhances your chances to get hired. It makes you stand out from the rest of your colleagues and besides, many agencies prefer to work with professionals with national certification. 

If you want to become a certified medical interpreter, you have three options to choose from: 

  1. You can pass an accreditation exam with the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI). The exam has a written and oral part. The languages you can get certification for are six: Spanish, Russian, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese. You have the option to take the exam either on-site or online from your home.  
  2. The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). The exam consists of an oral and written part and is offered for three languages: Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic. The exam can be taken only at an on-site location.  
  3. In case you want to work as a certified medical interpreter for the deaf community, you need certification for using American Sign Language. To acquire it, you will need to get the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), which is available only on-site.  

Once you become a certified medical interpreter, you will find out that you have more employment options as many agencies and medical facilities do require national certification of the professionals they work with no matter if they are hired as in-house staff or under a contract as free-lancers.

Workplace Details for Medical Interpreters  

Medical interpreters can work both as freelancers and as staff interpreters for an agency or a medical facility. Their workplace works differently depending on the specific assignment they have. Medical interpreters can work in various areas such as neurology, pediatrics, oncology, nutrition, mental health, speech or physical therapy. They can be summoned to interpret in operating rooms, at physician offices or go to visits at a patient’s home. Medical interpreters may also work in the financial department of a medical facility. 

Staff interpreters work full time during business hours and most of them may be on-call evenings or weekends. Freelance interpreters work flexible hours and many of them can be contacted at any time. 

Medical interpreters who offer over the phone interpreting (OPI) or video remote interpreting (VRI) services may reside in a location that is quite far away from the medical facility they work with – in a different state, country or time zone.

Salary and Career Outlook  

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides detailed information about the salary and career outlook for interpreters and translators in the country with specific figures for professionals employed in various industries. According to their data, the overall median annual wage for the industry stands at $51,790, while interpreters working for general medical and surgical hospitals receive $49,590.  

There is an expected increase in the demand for medical interpreters in the following years as a result of the growing number of people living in America who do not speak English. 

Your salary and career outlook generally depend on the language combination you work with and on your location. As a whole, there is a higher demand for interpreters with a bachelor’s degree, certification, and experience.

The career of a medical interpreter offers opportunities to meet interesting people and help them at a time when they are quite vulnerable. Communication abilities, empathy, and social awareness are as important for this job as proficiency in the languages you speak and knowledge of medical terminology. Experience is also quite helpful and if you want to develop in the career it is a good idea to become a member of a local medical interpreters organization if there is one in your region. Attending their meetings will give you the opportunity to interact with other medical interpreters, ask questions and find useful insights into the profession.  

Share This