One of the industries in which interpreters play a vital role should come as no surprise: the medical field, where a miscommunication between doctor and patient can have devastating consequences. But having an interpreter in a medical setting isn’t just a convenience; it’s mandated by law. According to the Civil Rights Act, people who have limited ability to speak English have the right to an interpreter. Even people who have friends or family members that can act as interpreters for them should have access to a professional. The reason is simple – the medical field is a highly specialized industry that often utilizes technical jargon specific to the medical field, so misinterpreting is easy to do for someone not acquainted with the terminology.

If you question the need for medical interpreters, consider this statistic: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 25 million Americans have marginal English skills and, in fact, speak the language “less than very well.” Providing translation services for this population not only benefits the non-native English speakers, it also provides a certain amount of protection for the medical professionals treating these patients. Medical facilities that don’t provide these mandated interpretation services face legal consequences, even though most states don’t provide funds to pay the salaries of these language professionals. In fact, Medicaid, Medicare and most private insurance companies won’t pay for the services either. So it seems that although the Civil Rights Act set forth protection for non-native English speaking patients, few agencies provide a means to enforce those protections. Fortunately for the patients, many hospitals and clinics take it upon themselves to hire interpreters to meet the needs of the non-native English speaking population.

Unlike translators, who convert written content from one language to another, interpreters deal with the spoken word and are often there in person, actively translating conversations between the medical professional and the patient. This requires not only a strong knowledge of the language, but also a great deal of familiarity with the jargon and technical terminology used in the medical profession. So an interpreter hired for work in a hospital or clinic setting should have both exceptional language skills and a good deal of experience within the medical profession.
Another less obvious function of a medical interpreter is that of cultural liaison. Many non-native English speakers come from different countries with various religious or cultural belief systems that may not match those of the U.S. A talented interpreter can assist the medical professional in understanding the patient’s cultural or religious beliefs with regard to illness and treatments. That type of clear communication is essential in ensuring that the patient not only understands the physician’s directions, but that the doctor understands why it may be difficult or challenging for some patients to comply.

Finally, a medical interpreter should be fully aware and respectful of the confidentiality that exists between doctor and patient. While language professionals are not bound by the Hippocratic Oath, they should nonetheless take the ethical standards involved in that vow to heart. Being a medical interpreter involves much more than simply speaking languages fluently, knowing medical jargon, and understanding different cultures – it also requires upholding ethical standards and respecting the age-old confidentiality that exists between patient and physician.
If you are in need of a medical interpreter, an excellent starting point is to contact a professional translation and interpretation company, one that can match a qualified linguist with your specific needs. If you are an interpreter interested in specializing in the medical field, keep in mind that this is one of the most challenging positions you could pursue. The amount of experience and training required is extensive and may take some time to accrue, but the end result will most likely be well worth the effort.