The Medical Interpreter’s Official Role…
The best thing for any doctor is to ensure that patients understand their questions; so that the best treatment is applied.
For helping patients with limited English ability, having medical interpreters on call is crucial, especially for rarer languages. But interpreting unfolds between active participants in a communicative moment, drawing on skills different from those used for static translation. And medical interpreting has a specific set of concerns: what if someone’s health—or even life—is at immediate risk? As with any aspect of the medical field, the last thing anyone wants is a measure of uncertainty.
For these reasons, certified medical interpreters are always preferable to an untrained person who happens to speak the needed language. (The latter is a common situation: a child or other relative with some English is enlisted to serve as go-between.)
They are familiar not only with terminology, but also how to handle everything from doctor–patient confidentiality to family interactions. Even healthcare professionals who do possess language skills often cannot simplify concepts for laypeople across language boundaries as effectively. And beyond conveying information and putting patients in a stressful situation at ease, there are legal and ethical implications.
Healthcare providers risk malpractice lawsuits; or other problems if their patients are not informed about what’s going on. So, the benefit of hiring a qualified medical interpreter far outweighs the cost that might result from not having one.
…and Everything Else They Do
On paper, an interpreter’s goal is simply for the doctor and patient to understand each other as fully as possible. But for patients with limited English, the medical setting can be doubly intimidating.
Having a dedicated medical interpreter can reassure the sick; and it helps the perception that your questions and information are accurately transmitted. This builds trust between doctor and patient, especially if there are other cultural issues that may cause discomfort. It is particularly important to extend this trust to interpreters; who may be called repeatedly for patients with long-term illnesses. Their services can become an ongoing, essential part of these patients’ care; particularly in rarer languages where the pool of professionals is smaller
By helping to create this supportive environment, interpreters enable patients to feel more confident; that they understand what is happening. In turn, doctors are sure that they can provide the most appropriate care.
How to Become a Medical Interpreter?
Although a background in life sciences is helpful for becoming an interpreter, it is not strictly necessary. (After all, the patients for whom one is interpreting will usually need things explained in non-technical terms.)
Organizations like the National Board for Certified Medical Interpreters (NBCMI); and Certifications Commission for Healthcare Providers (CCHI) offer standard credentials. You can see more about these organizations and the path to their certification in this blog.
Besides showing adequate oral and written language skills in both languages, prospective interpreters must also complete a medical interpreting course. A basic course explains terminology in English and the target language, outlines standard medical practices, and covers professional ethics.
Some programs, like Global Arena’s Bridging the Gap medical interpreting program, go further by addressing cultural and legal issues that may arise, and offering units for specialist areas of medicine. This knowledge is what makes qualified interpreters a wiser choice than family or community members brought along on visits.
But while certification is essential; the strongest test of medical interpreting skill is to gain practical experience. Many interpreters begin by signing up on a freelancer website; prior to joining a language service provider (LSP)’s vendor network.
For hospitals and other healthcare providers; an LSP with a deep knowledge of medical interpreting can save substantial time, money, and energy. Then, interpreters who prove themselves on the job can look forward to repeated calls and an ever-increasing level of expertise.
Getting to appointments on time and keeping a neutral demeanor are the best ways to maintain a good LSP-interpreter relationship.
Overall, everyone is on the same page in trying to ensure that all patients receive adequate care. The healthcare provider, medical interpreter, and LSP who work together can make that process more streamlined and simple for everyone.