Healthcare interpreting

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Overview

Healthcare interpreting is interpreting that takes place in healthcare settings of any sort, including doctor’s offices, clinics, hospitals, home health visits, mental health clinics, and public health presentations and financial assistance. Typically, the setting is an interview between one or more healthcare providers (doctor, nurse, lab technician), health care team(s) and a patient (or the patient and one or more family members). The last part of this definition doesn’t allow for interpreting in the financial aid department of a hospital, etc.

A qualified interpreter is an individual who has been assessed for professional skills, demonstrates a high level of proficiency in at least two languages and has the appropriate training and experience to interpret with skill and accuracy while adhering to the National Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice published by the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care.

There is some reliance on saying that a patient’s family members or friends can — or should — appropriately serve as interpreters. However, significant problems can arise from the use of family members, friends and particularly children, rather than trained professionals, as interpreters. Patients may suffer direct consequences because they do not fully understand a diagnosis or treatment. Interpreting errors by “ad hoc” interpreters — including family members and friends — are significantly more likely to have potential clinical consequences than interpreting provided by hospital interpreters.

Using trained interpreters can ensure confidentiality, prevent conflict of interest, and make sure that medical terms are interpreted correctly.

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.

Skills required for healthcare interpreting

The following components together comprise a reasonably comprehensive process for initial assessment of qualifications for healthcare interpreting.

  1. Basic language skills. General proficiency in speaking and understanding each of the languages in which the applicant would be expected to work. (If multiple languages are involved, it is essential that the applicant’s ability in each language be assessed, especially those in which the applicant may have more limited proficiency.) The applicant should be able to demonstrate public speaking skills.
  2. Code of Ethics. Recognition of ethical issues, knowledge of ethical standards (a code of ethics) and ethical decision-making.
  3. Cultural issues. Ability to anticipate and recognize misunderstandings that arise from the differing cultural assumptions and expectations of providers and patients and to respond to such issues appropriately.
  4. Healthcare terminology. Knowledge of commonly used terms and concepts related to the human body; symptoms, illnesses, and medications; and healthcare specialties and treatments in each language, including the ability to interpret or explicate technical expressions.
  5. Integrated interpreting skills. Ability to perform as required for employment, demonstrated by interpreting a simulated cross-linguistic interview with acceptable accuracy and completeness while monitoring and helping to manage the interaction in the interest of better communication and understanding.
  6. Translation of simple instructions. Ability to produce oral translations, or, where appropriate, brief written translations, of written texts such as signage or medicinal labels.

Healthcare interpreters vs. other types of interpreters

An interpreter, in general, is a person who renders a message spoken or signed in one language into a second language and who abides by a code of professional ethics.

A healthcare interpreter is one who interprets in healthcare settings of any sort, including doctor’s offices, clinics, hospitals, home health visits, mental health clinics, and public health presentations. Typically the setting is an interview between a healthcare provider (doctor, nurse, lab technician) and a patient (or the patient and one or more family members).

Qualified vs. Certified Interpreters

A certified interpreter is an interpreter who is certified as competent by a professional organization or government entity through rigorous testing based on appropriate and consistent criteria. Interpreters who have had limited training or have taken a screening test administered by an employing health, interpreter or referral agency are not considered certified. Some programs offer a certificate of completion, but this does not equal certification.

A qualified interpreter is an individual who has been assessed for professional skills, demonstrates a high level of proficiency in at least two languages and has the appropriate training and experience to interpret with skill and accuracy while adhering to the National Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice published by the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care.


Working Conditions

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 and employment 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.

Demand for healthcare interpreters

Organizations offering programs in medical interpreting

Culture Smart

Interpreter and translator Associations

National Associations in the United States

American Translators Association (ATA) Alexandria, VA website email: ata@atanet.org

ATA offers a number of online directories, including a Directory of Interpreting and Translating Services and a Directory of Language Services Companies (NOTE: ATA is not solely focused on health care interpreting/translating.)

Association of Language Companies (ALC) Arlington, VA website email: info@alcus.org

ALC is a national trade organization representing businesses that provide translation, interpretation, and language training services. (NOTE: ALC is not solely focused on health care interpreting/translating.)


National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), Santa Rosa, CA website email: info@NCIHC.org


The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care is a multidisciplinary organization based in the United States whose mission is to promote culturally competent professional health care interpreting as a means to support equal access to health care for individuals with limited English proficiency. Its website offers listings of state interpreter associations, working papers, and A National Code of Ethics for Interpreters in Health Care and National Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Health Care.

Directories of Healthcare interpreters worldwide

ProZ.com's interpreters world map This directory can be used to search for interpreters around the word. Healthcare interpreters can be found by selecting the "Medical". field. The search can also be refined by language pair and country of residence.

Sources

Explore Health Careers

NCIHC FAQs for Translators and Interpreters

NHeLP’s Language Services Resource Guide

Discussion related to this article

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