Health care interpreters facilitate communication between patients with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and their physicians, nurses, lab technicians and other health care providers. Because of the growing number of LEP patients, the need for health care interpreters has grown swiftly in the last decade, so there is good career potential in this profession.
When a patient has limited ability to speak English, it is nearly impossible for even the most skilled clinician to provide high-quality healthcare services without accurate interpreting performed by a trained, qualified and credentialed interpreter who has a working knowledge of medical terminology and medical systems. If family members, friends or staff who are not trained as health care interpreters try to interpret in health care settings, errors in understanding and/or communication are more likely to occur, posing grave risks to the patient and immense liability to the healthcare provider or institution.
Most health care interpreters are responsible for providing 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 serve to help provide cultural information to facilitate support for a treatment plan.
Health care interpreters often render sight translation of basic health care documents by orally translating a written document into the patient’s language. Health care interpreters may also interpret over the phone (OPI-over the phone or telephonic interpreting) or through video (VRI-video remote interpreting). Health care interpreters frequently educate other members of the health care team regarding the duties, requirements, protocol and ethics and standards of practice involved in health care interpreting.
Despite the career’s challenges, most health care interpreters speak of the intense emotional rewards they derive from their work. Like health care providers, on a daily basis they see that their work in providing language access saves lives and protects health and well-being.
Many health care 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 for Languages of Lesser Diffusion (LLDs) such as indigenous languages, telephonic interpreting is an industry that has seen considerable growth in the past few years. Health care interpreters and providers may offer these options either full-time or in addition to on-site interpreting.
Throughout the United States, interpreters are key and highly valued members of the health care team. Their responsibilities have evolved greatly in the last decade and are continuing to change to meet needs.
Health care interpreters work in a variety of health care settings, including hospitals, clinics, private offices, rehabilitation centers and nursing homes. Some interpreters work in only one department while others may work in a number of departments as needed.
Health care interpreters may need to work evenings and weekends or be on call. Since interpreting requires immense concentration and focus, some protocols specify that interpreters be given breaks every two hours; however, it is common for interpreters to work much longer as needed.
In addition to the stress of working in primary care and medical specialty fields, interpreters also confront unique issues related to working in mental health facilities, substance abuse clinics, forensic services, domestic violence programs or similar types of health care settings. Today health care interpreters, may be called upon to work any shift schedule and may also work on call, especially in acute care settings.
Until recently, the primary job prospects for health care interpreters were in urban settings. However, particularly for certain languages because of the increasingly changing demographics of the migrant and immigrant populations, the need is growing in all parts of the country, including many rural settings.
Salary Range and Outlook
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, the median (half of the workers earned more and half earned less) annual salary for an interpreter was $44,190. It should be noted that these figures will vary considerably based on numerous factors such as such location, type of institution/organization and employee status (a full- or part-time employee versus a contracted interpreter). The specific language in which an interpreter works may also be a factor.
To become a health care interpreter, you need to be far more than simply bilingual, although that is a good start. Certainly, interpreters must have advanced to superior fluency in at least two languages, as well as an in-depth knowledge of the cultures of the languages they are 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 health care facility in which you work.
To accomplish all this, you must have excellent oral communication skills, knowledge of specialized health care terms and concepts and a commitment to adhere to the national code of ethics and national standards of practice for interpreters in health care. One of the standards of practice, for instance, is that a health care interpreter must never add to or subtract from what is communicated by anyone.
Certification and other credentialing requirements vary by state. There are two national certifications for health care interpreters:
- Certification Commission for Health care Interpreters
- National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters
Minimum requirements for the profession vary greatly from state to state. Nonetheless, most health care institutions prefer to see:
- A certificate of successful completion from a recognized educational institution or training program (whether through a private institution, a two-year college or a four-year college)
- A certificate attesting to level of language proficiency in all of the interpreter’s working languages
- Skills testing in health care interpreting
- Proof of mastery of medical terminology in all working languages
General education and experience, rather than specific academic requirements, are the only other typical prerequisites.
Learn More About a Career as a Health Care Interpreter
- Watch “Worlds Apart,” a documentary by the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics.
- Read “Doctoring Across the Language Divide,” an article that appeared in Health Affairs, a health policy journal.
- California Healthcare Interpreting Association
- National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC)
- Certification Commission for Health Care Interpreters
- Hablamos Juntos
- Limited English Proficiency
- Interpreters Division of the American Translators Association