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What Does a Hospital Interpreter Do?

Hospital interpreters facilitate communication between hospital staff and non-English speaking patients.
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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 12 December 2014
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A hospital interpreter makes sure patients and health care professionals can communicate effectively despite language barriers. When a patient speaks a different language than doctors or emergency room personnel, it can be frustrating, difficult, and potentially dangerous to try to determine exactly what is wrong. A hospital interpreter is able to translate a patient's spoken information about his or her symptoms for doctors, and in turn explain diagnoses, tests, and treatment options to the patient. Interpreters work in many different hospital divisions, including emergency rooms, long-term care units, and medical billing departments.

When a non-native speaker comes to the hospital for medical care, he or she is appointed a hospital interpreter as soon as possible. The interpreter asks about symptoms, existing medical problems, or general concerns, and relays information to doctors and nurses. When x-rays or other diagnostic tests need to be conducted, the interpreter explains procedures to the patient. The interpreter continues to bridge the language gap throughout the patient's stay, explaining diagnoses, prescription information and doctor's orders about seeking further care. Since the names of diseases and other medical terms are not often used in everyday speech, a hospital interpreter needs to be intimately familiar with the foreign language in order to accurately translate information.

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In addition to providing in-person translation services, a professional also transcribes medical and insurance forms into the native language of patients. Once forms are filled out, he or she transcribes them back into their original format so they can be analyzed and filed accordingly. An interpreter may also translate billing information to ensure patients know how much they owe and the options they have to pay off balances.

Some hospital interpreters accompany doctors and nurses who travel abroad to treat people of impoverished or disaster-stricken regions. Some places have existing hospitals where patients can be admitted and assessed traditionally, but many relief efforts involve setting up temporary clinics and dealing with hundreds of patients at a time. Hospital interpreters help to keep order and give directions under such hectic conditions. They explain why doctors are visiting, how they can help, and what patients need to do to receive prompt care.

The educational requirements to become a hospital interpreter vary between regions and employers, but most professionals hold college degrees in one or more foreign languages. Many hospitals prefer to hire interpreters who have firsthand experience in health care as nurses or aides to ensure they can effectively understand and describe complex medical terms. Prospective interpreters can improve their credentials and their knowledge of medical interpreting by taking specialized courses in the subject at hospitals or technical schools. Several respected organizations, including the International Medical Interpreters Association, offer certification for professionals who pass written exams.

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