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How Do I Become a Hospital Interpreter?

Hospital interpreters facilitate communication between hospital staff and non-English speaking patients.
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  • Written By: K. Testa
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 22 December 2014
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To become a hospital interpreter, you typically need a combination of academic preparation and on-the-job training. The role of a hospital interpreter is to provide verbal interpretation between patients with limited English proficiency and hospital staff members. When necessary, they also may assist patients with understanding written medical information. Health care interpreters and other medical professionals are often in high demand. As a result, there are a variety of educational programs available to choose from to help you meet your career goals, including community college and university programs, online training and specialized certification from national boards.

Training to become a hospital interpreter can begin as early as high school, with a focus on developing language skills through reading and composition. Students exposed at an early age to foreign languages and cultures usually have an advantage when pursuing professional opportunities in this field. Typically, hospital interpreters have a bachelor’s degree, but the subject or field does not necessarily matter. Later, they usually complete intensive interpreter training that is specific to medical situations.

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Many traditional colleges and universities offer training to become a hospital interpreter through degree programs or continuing education courses. Numerous training programs are available online, as well. Education in medical interpretation typically includes general skills courses such as cross-cultural communication, in addition to specific courses such as face-to-face or telephone interpretation. While hospital interpreters are not necessarily required to be certified, certification usually increases a candidate’s credibility with a potential employer and can often lead to higher pay rates. More information on certification is available from The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters in the United States and the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA).

Someone hoping to become a hospital interpreter should generally possess certain traits. Successful interpreters usually are careful listeners and quick thinkers with an aptitude for speaking at least two languages very well. They also typically possess a cultural sensitivity that helps them navigate the nuances of both spoken and unspoken communication. Interpretation in a patient care setting requires additional, unique skills—not only does the hospital interpreter need to be bilingual, but he or she also needs a strong grasp of medical terminology in both languages.

Hospital interpreters must agree to maintain a patient’s confidentiality regarding paperwork and any communication with physicians and other hospital staff members. It is also important for interpreters to be aware of cultural issues and attitudes related to health care as well as to a patient’s individual medical issues; it is important to make the patient feel comfortable sharing private information. Hospital interpreters often work in emergency rooms and in other high-pressure situations where they have to process and transmit information quickly. Errors in translation could result in a serious misdiagnosis and improper treatment.

For continued success, interpreters typically must keep practicing their skills and stay informed about important changes in medical procedures or terminology. They do not necessarily have to be medical experts, but they do have to pay close attention to details. Hospital interpreters play a critical role in a constantly evolving health care system, contributing their skills for the benefit of patients and health care providers alike.

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