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Healthcare interpreters facilitate communication between patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) and their physicians, nurses, lab technicians, and other healthcare providers. Because of the growing number of LEP patients, the need for healthcare interpreters has grown swiftly in the last decade, so there is good career potential in this profession.
When a patient has limited English skills, it is nearly impossible for even the most skilled clinician to provide high-quality healthcare services without accurate interpreting performed by a trained, qualified interpreter who is familiar with medical terminology. If family members, friends or staff who are not trained as healthcare interpreters try to interpret in healthcare settings, errors in understanding and/or communication can occur, posing grave risks to the patient and immense liability to the healthcare institution.
The responsibilities of most full-time healthcare interpreters center on face-to-face interpreting between patients and providers. However, interpreters may also be asked to work with other individuals, such as family members or a patient representative, and they may provide cultural information to facilitate support for a treatment plan. Healthcare interpreters often render sight translation (oral translation) of healthcare documents by giving an oral translation into the language of the patient. Healthcare interpreters may also interpret over the phone or through video.
Healthcare interpreters often have to educate other members of the healthcare team across the disciplines regarding the duties, requirements, and ethical standards involved in healthcare interpreting.
Throughout the U.S., interpreters are becoming a key and highly valued member of the healthcare team. Their responsibilities have evolved greatly in the last decade, and this trend is continuing.
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Healthcare Interpreter October 1, 2010 [PDF 65KB]
Healthcare interpreters work in a variety of health care settings, including hospitals, clinics, private offices, rehabilitation centers and nursing homes. The unique rewards and challenges vary with each situation -- for example, some interpreters work in the ER, where the stressors may be considerable; some work in specific departments; others may be sent to almost any department.
Interpreting in some circumstances can be stressful -- i.e., in mental health facilities, substance abuse clinics, forensic services, or domestic violence programs. Since this is a relatively small field in proportion to the growing population of LEP patients, the volume and pace of work in a larger, urban hospital can be extremely challenging.
In the past, healthcare interpreters worked primarily on day shifts. However, today, they may be called upon to work any shift schedule and may also work on call. Since interpreting requires immense concentration and focus, many protocols specify that interpreters be given breaks every two hours; however, it is common for interpreters to work much longer as needed, without interruption.
In addition, many healthcare interpreters perform their work over the telephone or using video technology. Due to limited resources, particularly in rural areas and/or when specific language needs arise, telephonic interpreting is an industry which has seen considerable growth in the past few years. Healthcare interpreters may provide this service off-site either full-time or in addition to on-site interpreting.
Despite the career's unique challenges, most healthcare interpreters speak of the intense emotional rewards they derive from their work. Like healthcare providers, they see on a daily basis that their work saves lives and protects health and well-being.
Until recently, the primary job prospects for healthcare interpreters were in urban settings. However, particularly for certain languages such as Spanish, the need is growing in all parts of the country, including many rural and isolated settings. The average salary varies widely, depending on the language, job location, years of experience andemployment status.
The field of healthcare interpreting is professionalizing at an unprecedented pace. This trend has brought recognition for healthcare interpreting as a profession and better compensation packages. The job prospects for qualified interpreters are excellent for the foreseeable future.
For compelling and moving depictions of the importance of this new and growing career, see:
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To become a healthcare interpreter, you need far more than a facility with foreign languages, although that's a good start. Certainly, any interpreter must be fluent in all the languages used for interpreting.
However, you also need to be sensitive to the subtle nuances of meaning in a given language, and be able to communicate them -- in two directions. You must have the skills and knowledge to quickly grasp the intention of a message in its original language, then you must be able to re-express it swiftly and accurately in the target language.
In addition to this kind of language fluency, you need a thorough knowledge of medical terminology in both the target and source languages. You also should be familiar with specific medical procedures, as well as the different clinicians' roles at the healthcare facility in which you work.
To accomplish all this, you must have excellent oral communication skills, knowledge about specialized healthcare terms and concepts, and a commitment to adhere to the National Code of Ethics and National-Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Healthcare. One of the standards of practice, for instance, is that a healthcare interpreter must never add or subtract from what is communicated by anyone.
As of 2010, there are two national certifications for healthcare interpreters: the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI). Both certification processes are voluntary.
Minimum requirements for the profession vary greatly from state to state. Nonetheless, most healthcare institutions prefer to see:
General education and experience, rather than specific academic requirements, are the only other typical prerequisites. National Standards for Training of Healthcare Interpreters will be developed in 2010.
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Allied Health Professions
Last updated: May 23, 2013
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