How to Become a Hospital Interpreter
Hospital interpreters use their skill in English and a foreign language to provide invaluable services to patients and doctors alike. The ability for patients and healthcare professionals to communicate is fundamentally important to the safety and comfort of the patient during care, yet over 24 million Americans do not speak enough English to communicate effectively with their healthcare provider. Professional interpreters bridge this gap to ensure that patients receive safe, high-quality care. They also help providers to develop a better understanding of the patient's cultural background and how it may influence healthcare decisions.
Hospital interpreters assist during admissions, examinations, consultations, procedures and many other provider-patient encounters. They encourage direct communication between the provider and patient and repeat each utterance completely and accurately in the language of the listener. Interpreters usually remain in the background but may pause the conversation to clarify information, correct misunderstandings or respond to a patient’s discomfort.
The efforts of hospital interpreters ensure that underserved patients have equal access to healthcare regardless of language background, immigrant status or ability. In fact, federal law requires hospitals that receive Medicare, Medicaid and other government funds to provide interpretation services free of charge. Research shows that use of trained interpreters (instead of family members or bilingual staff) is safer for patients and improves their satisfaction with their care.
Being a hospital interpreter is an enormous responsibility and is also extremely rewarding. Read on to learn more about this challenging and in-demand career.
A majority of hospital interpreters are employed by hospitals or health systems. They work in a variety of medical facilities, including:
- Nursing homes and long-term care facilities
- Surgical centers
- Physician offices and group practices
- Dental offices
- Home health care agencies
- Mental health facilities
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 23 percent of interpreters and translators are self-employed. These individuals are usually well established in the field and work for several facilities on a freelance basis.
Interpreters work in a wide variety of settings from operating rooms to financial services departments. They often travel to attend appointments at physician offices and patients’ homes. In some cases, they interpret by telephone or via video conferencing.
Most medical interpreters work full time during regular business hours. Staff interpreters may be on-call some evenings and weekends. Self-employed interpreters work highly variable hours and can be called in at any time.
In addition to oral interpretation, hospital interpreters perform some office work, including record keeping and translation of written documents. They also follow up with patients to see if they have questions or need additional assistance.
The overriding qualification to become a hospital interpreter is fluency in both English and a foreign language. Prospective interpreters gain their skills in a variety of ways, including growing up bilingual, studying a foreign language in school and spending time abroad.
While there are no set education requirements for hospital interpreters, most employers prefer a four-year degree. Registry for Interpreters of the Deaf (RID) requires a bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience for certification as an interpreter of American Sign Language (ASL). Sixty percent of the interpreters employed by the Stanford University health system have master’s degrees.
While proficiency is crucial, it’s not necessary for aspiring hospital interpreters to major in a language. However, classes in the life sciences, medical terminology and cross-cultural communication are valuable. Those pursuing careers as ASL interpreters should obtain a bachelor’s or even a graduate degree in the field. RID maintains a searchable directory of educational programs on its website.
In addition to a bachelor’s degree, hospital interpreters benefit from job-specific training. A respected program for foreign language interpreters is Bridging the Gap, a 40-hour introductory course offered around the country by The Cross Cultural Health Care Program. Training courses are also available through community colleges, universities, career centers, minority health agencies and professional organizations. The International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) maintains a searchable directory of training programs on its website.
Interpretation is a complex skill that takes many years to master. For this reason, many hospital interpreters choose to work with a mentor during the first few years of their careers. IMIA currently offers a mentorship program to members who have completed a 40-hour training course and have one year of relevant work experience. The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) also launched a mentorship program in 2012. ASL interpreters will soon be able to connect with potential mentors through the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers.
Many hospital interpreters complete an internship or volunteer work before seeking paid employment. This allows them to gain additional experience, sharpen their skills and make professional contacts. Many training programs include an internship component. Local professional organizations are also a great resource for locating these opportunities.
Licensing and/or Certification
Interpreting skills are extremely difficult for potential employers to assess due to the language barriers involved. Demand from both the healthcare industry and professional organizations resulted in the creation of the first national certifications for hospital interpreters in the first decade of the 21st century. While certification is voluntary, it is strongly desired by employers and well worth pursuing—especially if it is available in the candidate’s working language.
The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (a division of IMIA) offers a Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI) credential for English-Spanish interpreters. Candidates must pass a written exam in English and an oral exam in English and Spanish. They must also meet the following prerequisites:
- Age 18 or older
- Completion of a training program totaling at least 40 hours
- One year of work experience as a medical interpreter
- High school diploma or equivalent
- Demonstrated proficiency in both English and a foreign language
The National Board expects to add additional credentials in 2012 for interpreters of Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian. Check the website for the latest updates.
The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) offers two levels of certification. The Certified Healthcare Interpreter (CHI) credential requires candidates to pass both written and oral/practical exams; this credential is currently available to interpreters of Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin. Interpreters of other languages earn the Associate Healthcare Interpreter (AHI) credential by passing the written exam only. Prerequisites are the same as for the CMI.
ASL interpreters can pursue National Interpreter Certification (NIC) through RID. Candidates must be at least 18 years of age and have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent work experience. To become certified, they must pass a written knowledge exam, practical exam and oral interview.
In addition to these national programs, a few states offer voluntary certification programs for hospital interpreters. For more information, contact your state’s health department or your local IMIA chapter.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Oral and written fluency in both English and a foreign language are absolute requirements for hospital interpreters. Aspiring interpreters should also have in-depth knowledge of the culture of their prospective patients. Interpreters rely on strong interpersonal and self-management skills in order to facilitate communication while remaining impartial and objective. These professionals must be adept at thinking on their feet and have excellent short-term memory ability. Finally, hospital interpreters must demonstrate strong commitment to professionalism and ethics, especially in the area of patient confidentiality.
Opportunities for Advancement
Experienced hospital interpreters often advance to serve as department managers or directors of interpreting. Others start their own interpreting services or leave the clinical setting to train others. Interpreters of ASL enjoy the option of becoming tenured professors in their field.
Certified interpreters with demonstrated skill and experience generally have the greatest opportunity for advancement. A graduate degree is desirable for those who wish to teach. Further business education will benefit interpreters looking to become solo practitioners.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that the annual median salary for interpreters employed in general medical and surgical hospitals was $41,720 as of May 2010. The lowest-paid 10% of interpreters and translators earned less than $22,950 while the highest-paid 10% earned more than $86,410. Earnings generally increase with experience, skill, certification and education. Pay also varies by language—those whose working language is in demand in their area generally earn more.
According to the US Department of Labor, job growth for interpreters and translators is expected to increase by 42% between 2010 and 2020, which is considered much faster than average for all occupations. This increase is due in part to diversification— America’s immigrant population grew 140 percent between 1980 and 2010 and continues to rise. Recent focus on hospital safety has also fueled demand for qualified interpreters. Demand is highest for certified, experienced interpreters with a four-year degree and a proven track record of success.