Medical Interpreters in the United States

July 25, 2011 |

Can you imagine having a severe medical emergency and not being able to communicate with or understand the physician treating you? Fortunately, there is a solution to this frequent conundrum: Medical interpretation services. Medical interpreters are also known as “healthcare interpreters”. They facilitate communications between health care providers and their patients with Limited English Proficiency. Medical interpreters work in hospitals, clinics, or medical offices, with greatest demand being in urban areas where the population tends to be more linguistically diverse. They may also work at conferences, in courtrooms, and other non-medical settings.

Many refugees and displaced persons with limited English proficiency might actually avoid situations where they are obliged to interact with native English speakers, like at the doctor’s office. This could lead to dangerous consequences if medical attention is not sought until after it is too late. Also, a single misinterpreted medical term could mean the difference between life and death. This is a risk most doctors and health care facilities are simply unwilling to take. Medical interpretation offers a valuable service to physicians, by lowering a physician’s malpractice liability. Furthermore, utilizing medical interpreters allows a physician to attract a broader patient base of international patients which otherwise might be inaccessible.

In the United States, between 15,000 and 17,000 people work as medical interpreters, and the number is expected to increase as hospitals and clinics add more medical interpreters to their staff. The International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) plays a crucial role in medical interpretation awareness. The IMIA is a US-based organization, whose online presence is a venue for recruitment, advocacy, and training/education related to this ever-growing field. Interpreters in this field need a strong foundation of cultural sensitivity, personal discretion, and ample knowledge of medical and colloquial terminology in both English and the foreign language in which they are fluent. Many US universities offer specialized certifications in Medical Interpretation, the course work for which sharpens the professional capabilities of these interpreters.

According to a Bureau of Labor and Statistics report, medical interpreters enjoy very high demand for their services as the country’s international population increases. The need for medical interpreters is expected to grow by 22% over the ten-year period ending in 2018, which is considered “much faster than average” and represents the addition of more than 11,000 new medical interpreter positions during this period. By law, any entity that receives federal funding, whether it’s Medicare reimbursement or research grants, must provide a patient with limited English proficiency an interpreter at no cost to the patient. In early 2009, California enacted a language-services law requiring all health plans and insurers to provide an interpreter for limited-English speaking patients at no cost to the patients. (Gerencher, Kristen. [5 November 2009] “When English becomes a Barrier to Care.” Retrieved from:

The field of medical interpretation has certainly come a long way from the days when patients would rely solely on their minor children or when hospital staff would comb their ranks for candidates or ask if anyone in the waiting room spoke Polish, for example. (Gerencher).This niche industry will continue to grow along with the United States billowing number of non-native English speakers. All patients having access to complete and comprehensive medical care can be attained thanks in part to the role of medical interpreters.

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