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Interpreting, Medical:
"Why medical interpreters are healthcare professionals"
About the author Mathew Call ►

By Mathew Call
Medical Interpreting & Cultural Services
University of California Davis Health System

Why Medical Interpreters are Healthcare Professionals

Medical or healthcare interpreting is a recently organized profession which explains the confusion as to what category of profession as well as what the healthcare interpreter's role is. Medical interpreting is a specialty field within the larger profession of interpreting and translating. It is less a body of work within the health services industry. Interpreters deal with spoken or signed languages, translators deal with written texts. Interpreting and translating spans the entire gamut of international relations as well as every kind of interaction between immigrant and deaf/hard of hearing populations and the services to which they have a right here in the United States of America. Interpreters work in hospitals, clinics, courts, conferences, schools, government offices, etc. Even though each venue's protocol differs, all interpreters and translators belong to the same industry. According to the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Interpreters and translators enable the cross-cultural communication necessary in today's society by converting one language into another. However, these language specialists do more than simply translate words---they relay concepts and ideas between languages. They must thoroughly understand the subject matter in which they work in order to accurately convert information from one language, known as the source language, into another, the target language. Strong research and analytical skills, mental dexterity, and an exceptional memory also are important. In addition, they must be sensitive to the cultures associated with their languages of expertise…Medical interpreters [in particular] need a strong grasp of medical and colloquial terminology in both languages, along with cultural sensitivity regarding how the patient receives the information. They must remain detached but aware of the patient's feelings and pain. (

The ASTM Standard Guide for Language Interpretation Services (Standards F2089-01), released in 2001, identifies the components of quality language interpretation services and establishes criteria for each component. These criteria define the minimum standard of quality services in the language interpretation industry with reference to distinctive characteristics of specific settings. It evaluates the interpreting industry as a whole, with the understanding that there is one industry and one interpreting profession operating in varied settings (including healthcare). (

Clifford D. Stromberg, attorney and renowned ethicist states in his Key Issues in Professional Ethics (Reflections on Ethics, ASHA 1990) that a practice profession (as opposed to a technical profession) is distinguished by three essential characteristics:
1) A profession has a defined or limited scope of practice and a related body of knowledge.
2) Professionals adhere to a clearly articulated set of values or code of ethics.
3) A profession has a special monopoly over the right to provide a particular service through licensure or certification.
By examining these three characteristics: the scope of practice (and the education/training necessary to practice), the set of values (i.e. standards of practice), as well as the topic of certification/licensure, healthcare interpreting emerges very clearly as a healthcare practice profession closely resembling other practice professions.

Scope of Practice
The ASTM Standard Guide mentioned above asserts that, in addition to knowledge of the subject matter and corresponding terminology, the interpreter should have a "broad general education," which may include the following:
• Post-secondary education or its equivalent
• The ability to familiarize him/herself with new fields rapidly and thoroughly, and
• In-depth knowledge of one or more fields of specialization, which may include certification through testing in certain fields (for example, in legal and medical)

Regarding the educational background for interpreters, the U.S. Department of Labor states:

Interpreters and translators must be fluent in at least two languages. Their educational backgrounds may vary widely, but most have a bachelor's degree. Many also complete job-specific training programs. Although a bachelor's degree is often required, interpreters and translators note that it is acceptable to major in something other than a language. An educational background in a particular field of study provides a natural area of subject matter expertise. However, specialized training in how to do the work is generally required. Formal programs in interpreting and translation are available at colleges nationwide and through nonuniversity training programs, conferences, and courses. Many people who work as conference interpreters or in more technical areas--such as localization, engineering, or finance--have master's degrees, while those working in the community as court or medical interpreters or translators are more likely to complete job-specific training programs. Experience is an essential part of a successful career in either interpreting or translation. In fact, many agencies or companies use only the services of people who have worked in the field for 3 to 5 years or who have a degree in translation studies or both. (

As the federal government makes clear, most interpreters have a bachelor's degree. Only after obtaining a degree, job-specific training may sometimes occur. Because medical interpreting in particular carries with it such heavy liability, it is even more likely to be required of healthcare interpreters. All interpreters must be trained in the skills specific to interpreting but as stated above, it is not always necessary to have a degree in interpretation or translation. Sign language interpreters, for example, are required to have a degree in order to obtain national certification but not necessarily a degree in interpreting. Because medical interpreting is a newly organized profession, those who've been in the field the longest may not have the required bachelor's degree. The profession is proceeding with caution regarding this issue. As with every new practice profession, care must be taken so as not to create a shortage of practitioners as the transition to higher standards occurs. This is the phase we are temporarily in and solely for this reason may experience and formal testing sometimes substitute for a degree.

According to Izabel Arocha, M.Ed, president of the International Medical Interpreters Association, the interpreter must have the appropriate educational background and cultural knowledge to be able to match all language registers and cultural nuances. Additionally interpersonal and public speaking skills must be developed after which, no matter the languages, consecutive, simultaneous, and sight translation skills must then be developed. Only after all these foundation competences are present can an interpreter specialize into a field such as medical/healthcare interpreting.
As with any healthcare profession, "The first part of an interpreter's work begins before arriving at the jobsite. The interpreter must become familiar with the subject matter that the speakers will discuss, a task that may involve research…" (U.S. Dept. of Labor). This is one of the reasons why interpreters need broad post-secondary education. Interpreters must try and predict what type of demands they may have to deal with. Medical interpreters are vital members of the healthcare team working with other healthcare professionals such as physicians, nurses, therapists, social workers, etc.

Interpreters must work very independently without direct supervision. Throughout the workday and within the framework of their designated standards of practice, all the aforementioned healthcare professionals regularly make ethical judgments and decisions depending on the current interaction. Interpreting is no different. All information learned is confidential (within certain confines). They must be aware of any potential conflict of interest, as well as personal judgments, values, beliefs or opinions that may lead to preferential behavior or bias affecting the quality and accuracy of the service provided. They must strive to support mutually respectful relationships between all the parties in the interaction. Different professionals will make different decisions based on their past experience, training, and most of all the interaction at hand, all of which may be perfectly acceptable. No two professionals would do exactly the same thing in every situation like technicians would. Often this expertise is not learned in school, yet is professional in nature, and could not be construed as technical.

Ethical dilemmas arise without failure in every single interpreted assignment. Ethical decision-making is a central part of what any practice professional including interpreters must learn to grapple with. What if a patient tells the interpreter something but requests s/he not inform the doctor? What if the doctors are conferencing in front of the patient and request the interpreter remain silent? What if the patient responds s/he has never taken drugs but the interpreter happens to know this is not true? The list is endless. In ethics, there is never one simple correct answer and several options may be acceptable while several will surely result in disaster. This is a major distinction of practice professions as opposed to technical jobs. Two renowned scholars in the field of interpreting, Robert Q. Pollard, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Robyn K. Dean, M.A. C.I./C.T. have stated:

We view interpreting as a practice profession, like medicine, law, teaching, counseling, or law enforcement, where careful consideration and judgment regarding situational and human interaction factors are central to doing effective work. We contrast the practice professions with the technical professions, such as engineering and accounting, where knowledge and skills pertaining to the technical elements of a job are largely sufficient to allow the professional to produce a competent work product. Interpreters function more like practice professionals than technicians due to the significance of situational and human interaction factors on their ultimate work product; that is, factors beyond the technical elements of the source and target language…Interpreters cannot deliver effective professional service armed only with their technical knowledge of source and target languages…Like all practice professionals, they must supplement their technical knowledge and skills with input, exchange, and judgment regarding the consumers they are serving in a specific environment and in a specific communicative situation" (in Consumers and Service Effectiveness in Interpreting Work: A Practice Profession Perspective).

Healthcare interpreters do not function strictly as invisible conduits. They are to skillfully weave in and out of four distinct roles outlined in the established standards of practice: message converter, message clarifier, cultural mediator, and on rare occasions patient advocate (referred to as the incremental intervention model; see attachment #5-California Standards for Healthcare Interpreters). This model gives the trained interpreter options of how to handle any situation including ways of handling the inevitable unfamiliarity that occurs for either the patient, provider, or interpreter him/herself. These roles were hotly debated for several years before a consensus was reached and their applicability varies depending on the languages being used. Their aim is to allow the interpreter to support the patient-provider relationship while minimizing the negative yet maximizing the positive aspects of having a third party involved in a medical encounter. Even the most technical of the roles, message converter, must remain subjective, for like the human brain, language with its tone, inflections, underlying meanings, cultural nuances, and body language is so incredibly complex that science has yet to successfully produce a machine that can interpret in the way a human professional interpreter can. Interpreters are constantly making value judgments as to which is the best way to reproduce an utterance depending on the dynamics of the interaction and the parties involved. The incremental intervention model is making an impact in the legal interpreting realm as well (see attachment #1).

Vicarious trauma is a phenomenon common to many practice professions which has led to several organized outlets for case conferencing. It is not so common in technical professions. Vicarious trauma and case conferencing are also common in the profession of interpreting, especially healthcare interpreting. The needs assessment process of the ASTM Standard Guide declares the importance of providing an appropriate and adequate working environment with the view to facilitating the interpreter's performance and avoiding professional burnout.
According to the ASTM Guide, "Interpretation is a complex, demanding task that requires an excellent command of languages, possession of skills and abilities specific to interpretation, and knowledge of the subject matter being interpreted." Therefore, the standard acknowledges that the interpreter may incur liability for a lack of accuracy in interpretation. By definition, the public expects practice professionals to be reliable and responsible. The interpreter has an enormous (often unwanted) amount of power. S/he is the only one in the encounter who knows everything that is said. What would happen if s/he broke ethics and intentionally or unintentionally misinterpreted? Just like the Hippocratic Oath physicians take when entering the practice of medicine, so do interpreters hold beneficence as the overarching guiding principle of their practice. Staff medical interpreters may be covered by their institution's liability or malpractice insurance and it is common for freelance interpreters to maintain this type of insurance just like many healthcare professionals do.

Established Standards
All practice professions (and especially healthcare professions) rely on established standards of practice, a code of ethics, and/or a code of professional conduct. The public depends on them for ethical reliable services. Healthcare interpreting is no different. International, national, and California state standards have all been established. Each built on the preceding documents and compliment as opposed to contradict each other. (See attachments #2 and #3 for non-contradictory attestation.)

International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA)
Code of Ethics established 1987, revised 2006
Medical Interpreting Standards adopted October 1995; attachment #4

California Healthcare Interpreting Association (CHIA)
California Standards for Healthcare Interpreters adopted September 2002; attachment #5

National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC)
National Code of Ethics adopted July 2004; attachment #6
National Standards of Practice adopted September 2005; attachment #7

Sign language interpreters have an additional code of professional conduct that applies to all interpreting involving adults whether in healthcare or otherwise. This code predates the three above.

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf/National Association of the Deaf:
National Code of Ethics first conceived 1964, most recent revision July 2005: Code of Professional Conduct; attachment #8

As of 23 February 2007, California state law fully adopts both the National and California Standards for Healthcare Interpreters. SB853 mandates all HMOs under the Department of Managed Healthcare to finance and provide language assistance: "The Department will accept plan standards for interpreter ethics, conduct, and confidentiality that adopt and apply, in full, the standards promulgated by the California Healthcare Interpreting Association or the National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare" Section 1300.67.04(c)(2)(H)(iii) (See attachments #9, #10, and #11). SB853 also states that if healthcare organizations already have language assistance programs in place, they must raise them to level of SB853 or higher for Medi-Cal AND HMO patients. A quick internet search will provide plenty of articles in California's major newspapers that have been covering this story. The standards of practice for healthcare interpreters are now widely accepted (see

CLAS Standards: attachment #12;
After years of research and collaboration, in March 2001 the U.S. Federal government released a landmark 132-page report entitled National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services in Health Care. It was prepared by the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health and has come to be known as the CLAS Standards. A total of 14 Standards are covered in the document. The Preamble states that Standards 4-7 are mandates or current Federal requirements for all recipients of Federal funds. The following excerpt is taken from page 10:

Standards 4, 5, 6, and 7 are based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with respect to services for limited English proficient (LEP) individuals. Title VI requires all entities receiving Federal financial assistance, including health care organizations, take steps to ensure that LEP persons have meaningful access to the health services that they provide. The key to providing meaningful access for LEP persons is to ensure effective communication between the entity and the LEP person. For complete details on compliance with these requirements, consult the HHS guidance on Title VI with respect to services for (LEP) individuals (65 Fed. Reg. 52762-52774, August 30, 2000) at [].

Standard 6 addresses the competence of individuals who perform interpreting services:

Health care organizations must assure the competence of language assistance provided to limited English proficient patients/consumers by interpreters... Family and friends should not be used to provide interpretation services (except on request by the patient/consumer). Accurate and effective communication between patients/consumers and clinicians is the most essential component of the health care encounter. Patients/consumers cannot fully utilize or negotiate other important services if they cannot communicate with the nonclinical staff of health care organizations. When language barriers exist, relying on staff who are not fully bilingual or lack interpreter training frequently leads to misunderstanding, dissatisfaction, omission of vital information, misdiagnoses, inappropriate treatment, and lack of compliance. It is insufficient for health care organizations to use any apparently bilingual person for delivering language services--they must assess and ensure the training and competency of individuals who deliver such services.

Bilingual clinicians and other staff who communicate directly with patients/consumers in their preferred language must demonstrate a command of both English and the target language that includes knowledge and facility with the terms and concepts relevant to the type of encounter. Ideally, this should be verified by formal testing. Research has shown that individuals with exposure to a second language, even those raised in bilingual homes, frequently overestimate their ability to communicate in that language, and make errors that could affect complete and accurate communication and comprehension.

Prospective and working interpreters must demonstrate a similar level of bilingual proficiency. Health care organizations should verify the completion of, or arrange for, formal training in the techniques, ethics, and cross-cultural issues related to medical interpreting... Interpreters must be assessed for their ability to convey information accurately in both languages before they are allowed to interpret in a health care setting.

In order to ensure complete, accurate, impartial, and confidential communication, family, friends or other individuals, should not be required, suggested, or used as interpreters. A patient/consumer may choose to use a family member or friend as an interpreter after being informed of the availability of free interpreter services unless the effectiveness of services is compromised or the LEP person's confidentiality is violated. The health care organization's staff should suggest that a trained interpreter be present during the encounter to ensure accurate interpretation and should document the offer and declination in the LEP person's file. Minor children should never be used as interpreters, nor be allowed to interpret for their parents when they are the patients/consumers.

• See attachments #13 and #14 for a list of additional legislation that mandates equal access to limited English proficient individuals in the United States.

• Attachment #15 is the American Medical Association published Guide to Communicating with LEP Patients which states: "Research indicates that when family members, friends, strangers or other untrained individuals serve as interpreters (known collectively as ad hoc interpreters), significantly more interpretation errors of clinical consequence occur. Studies also show that the use of ad hoc interpreters is associated with a high risk of interpretation errors, omissions, distortions and redundancy. Ad hoc interpreters are unlikely to have adequate training in medical terminology and confidentiality, and sometimes may have priorities that conflict with patients and may inhibit or preclude essential discussions on sensitive issues such as domestic violence, substance abuse, psychiatric illness and sexually transmitted diseases."

• Attachments #16, #17, #18, and #19 show all the lawsuits that have occurred when these legislations have been violated and untrained individuals have attempted to act as interpreters, including one that ended in a patient becoming quadriplegic and rewarded $71 million in settlement. It should no longer be disputed that lack of appropriate linguistic and cultural services in healthcare equals disaster to patient safety. Also see

• Attachment #20 is an article written by Leland Y. Yee as assistant speaker pro tem of the California State Assembly about proposed legislation to outlaw the use of children as interpreters which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

• Attachment #21 is a recent study showing that family members who function as interpreters view themselves outside the established roles of a healthcare interpreter.

• Attachment #22 is a recent study empirically comparing the quality of interpreting between ad hoc interpreters (bilingual healthcare providers and other untrained individuals acting as interpreters) and professional interpreters. Its principal findings state: "We found that use of professional interpreters is associated with improved quality of health care for patients with limited English proficiency, and that professional interpreter use is likewise associated with a positive impact that is greater than that of ad hoc interpreters. In all four areas examined, use of professional interpreters is associated with improved clinical care more than is use of ad hoc interpreters, and professional interpreters appear to raise the quality of clinical care for LEP patients to approach or equal that for patients without language barriers" (emphasis added).

• Attachment #23 is a study from Journal of General Internal Medicine showing that professional interpreters can improve the delivery of healthcare to LEP patients. Attachments #24 is an article from the New England Journal of Medicine showing the same.

• One survey by Margarita Battle of Massachusetts General Hospital revealed that untrained interpreters translated the word "seizures" one time as "kidnapping," once as "lose consciousness," once as "cramps," once as "stitches," and five times the word simply wasn't translated. It found that these individuals commonly do not understand the provider's words and fail to seek clarification, misinterpret due to lack of adequate vocabulary to interpret culture-specific idioms, specialized terms, etc. and often commit omissions or changes in meaning.

• See for a list of lawsuits that have occurred when the Americans with Disabilities Act has been violated.

All these same types of things can happen with any unqualified practice professional.

There is no question as to how critical it is to have a way of knowing an interpreter is minimally qualified for their work. With a credible certification process, individual organizations need not invest so many resources in internal interpreter screening. Certification helps protect from legal liability and would certainly boost the institution's credibility in the case of reviews from organizations such as JCAHO or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights. Additionally, the existence of a quality standard for interpretation, as embodied in a certification process, might make legislators more willing to dedicate public funds to the reimbursement of interpreter services. And, most importantly, providers in the institutions would be able to count on accurate and appropriate interpreting, leading to clearer communication with all the health, legal and financial benefits associated with it.

Legal certification exists and is in full force for federal and state court interpreters for many languages. As of 2006 eight states have developed, or are developing state certification for healthcare interpreters (Washington, Oklahoma, Oregon, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas). A few require licensure of practicing medical interpreters. Attachment #25 is Texas H.B. No. 1341. National certification currently exists for sign language interpreters and is jointly administered through RID and NAD (National Association of the Deaf). The NAD website provides a beautiful Table of State Laws and Regulations on Requirements of Interpreters which includes all 50 states ( Many require not only certification but also licensure of sign language interpreters. National medical interpreter certification for other languages is currently being established. The following four organizations are heading the project: IMIA, NCIHC, CHIA, and ATA (American Translators Association). Attachments #26, #27, and #28 show in chronological order the progress of the National Coalition on Health Care Certification.

Cynthia Roat, M.P.H. (founding member of NCIHC) compiled a 95-page document entitled Certification of Health Care Interpreters in the United States: A Primer, A Status Report and Considerations for National Certification (attachment #29) which was released in September 2006. She explains what is required to create and maintain a validated national certification. She outlines the certification processes that have already been developed in the U.S. by state agencies, commercial language companies, foundations, and academic institutions.

The last question to address is how a professional healthcare interpreter's pay should fare when compared to other healthcare practice professionals. The only pay scale that is up to market standards within the UC system is that of sign language interpreters covered by the UPTE contract at UCLA which ranges from about $30-$60/hour, comparable to other healthcare practice professionals such as social workers, pharmacists, physician's assistants, psychologists, etc.

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