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What is a Medical Interpreter?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A medical interpreter is a professional interpreter who has received special training so that he or she can work in a medical setting. Medical interpreters create a bridge between patients and doctors who are separated by language gaps, facilitating communication and ensuring that patients get the care they need. These interpreters may also act as advocates who speak up on the behalf of communities who cannot communicate on their own due to language barriers.

To become a medical interpreter, someone must be fluent in the primary language of a nation, along with a second language. In addition to being fluent in two languages, medical interpreters are also fluent in medical vocabulary, so that they can understand what doctors are saying and they can convey information from patients in a clear and helpful way. A medical interpreter is not limited to two languages: facility in more languages is welcome and can in fact be very helpful. People can also opt to work as medical translators, translating written communications into different languages.

From the perspective of patients, using a medical interpreter can ensure that a medical issue is addressed properly. If a patient cannot communicate with a doctor, he or she has no way of knowing that the doctor understands the complaint, and the patient will also not understand the results of tests, the reasoning behind medical procedures, and other issues. Being surrounded by people who speak an unfamiliar language can also be frightening, and a medical interpreter can help dispel these fears.

Medical providers like to use interpreters whenever possible because using an interpreter allows for a high level of care, and increases efficiency. It can also cut down on malpractice insurance and decrease medical mistakes, as doctors will not make mistakes or bad decisions because of a frustrating language barrier. Doctors also like interpreters because they can expand the base of potential patients; a doctor in California who offers treatment to Spanish-speaking patients, for example, will see a lot more patients.

Several trade schools offer medical interpreter programs for people who are interested in joining this profession. Medical interpreters can also opt to learn through volunteering with clinics and hospitals, providing patient advocacy and learning along the way.

Working as an interpreter does not always generate a very high salary, but it can be very emotionally rewarding. Interpreters also get a chance to refine their language skills. The best interpreter is compassionate and patient, with specific training in both interpreting and medical skills. Medical interpreters must also be sensitive to cultural differences, as many immigrants may have personal boundaries and moral norms which vary from those of the surrounding community.

PracticalAdultInsights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PracticalAdultInsights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon995638 — On May 16, 2016

The profession of medical interpreting has gone through changes that hurt the interpreter. I'm not talking about the certification requirements, which are necessary and late in coming. I'm a certified medical interpreter and I'm proud of this accomplishment. The focus on having better trained, more educated interpreters is important for patient safety. However, my job security has never been worse. I expected to be making much more money by this point and instead, I'm making less than when I started out in 2003, in a rinky-dink county clinic. Contract companies are continuously changing and being bought out by bigger companies. Money making strategies are bringing record earnings to share holders but have left many of us searching for a new profession. If you are considering this employment as a major source of income, proceed with caution.

By anon342230 — On Jul 18, 2013

An interpreter does not only need linguistic ability and knowledge, but also special training in interpreting itself. It is not that anyone who is bilingual can interpret.

Therefore, to say "To become a medical interpreter, someone must be fluent in the primary language of a nation, along with a second language" is incorrect. Being bilingual only gives you the ticket to get on the train of having a possibility of becoming an interpreter.

Unfortunately, this misunderstanding has already placed so much wrong doing in the interpreting process all over the world, especially public service interpreting.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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