Healthcare professionals wait in the hallway of a hospital. Once they meet with their patients, they'll need to connect to a medical interpreter.

How Does Medical Interpreting Work?

Medical interpreters are essential in ensuring that communication between healthcare providers and patients who speak a language other than English is accurate. This can be challenging because of linguistic and cultural barriers, but with the expertise of an experienced medical interpreter, patients are able to communicate their needs, concerns, and preferences, and healthcare providers are able to deliver high-quality care.

Let’s take a closer look at medical interpreting.

Get Quick and Easy Access to Qualified Medical Interpreters at Certified Languages International

An Overview of Medical Interpreting

Medical interpreting is a vital tool in effective communication between medical professionals and their patients who speak different languages. Accurate and culturally appropriate interpretation services can help ensure patients receive quality healthcare.

Medical interpreting is not just limited to language fluency in both languages. It also involves specialized knowledge of medical terminology and medical interpreter protocols. Medical interpreters are trained to facilitate communication between patients, their families, and healthcare providers, and can make a significant difference in health outcomes for patients. Qualified medical interpreters allow healthcare systems to remain in compliance with federal and state language access laws and to promote health equity.

The Importance of Medical Interpretation

One of the most significant benefits of medical interpretation is the elimination of language barriers that can lead to serious medical errors. 

Miscommunications due to ad hoc interpreters or a lack of an interpreter altogether can result in inappropriate treatments, misdiagnoses, or poor medication adherence for a patient. These miscommunications can put the patient at risk and worsen their health outcomes. 

Medical interpretation promotes cultural competence within the healthcare system. It ensures that patients receive equal and respectful treatment regardless of their spoken or signed language or cultural background. Patients feel more comfortable and confident when they can communicate effectively with their healthcare providers. This leads to improved patient satisfaction and better patient outcomes.

Situations Where Medical Interpreting Is Essential

Medical interpreting is essential in all healthcare situations when a patient and her healthcare provider don’t speak the same language. These situations include, but are not limited to, the following: 

  • Anytime the patient needs to provide consent
  • When a provider collects a patient’s medical history
  • During physical exams
  • When the patient needs to communicate symptoms, has questions, or has concerns
  • For treatment decisions and discussions
  • When discharge instructions are delivered

It’s crucial to have a medical interpreter present in these situations (at least!) to ensure clear communication and accurate interpretation of diagnoses, prescriptions, and the physician’s care plan.

Code of Ethics for Medical Interpreters

Medical interpreters follow a strict code of ethics to ensure professionalism, confidentiality, and accountability. These ethical standards include impartiality, accuracy, cultural competence, confidentiality, and professional development. 

The Code of Ethics developed by the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) outlines these standards and is widely recognized by the medical interpreting industry. 

Security and HIPAA Compliance

Medical interpreters comply with strict confidentiality requirements, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), to protect patient privacy. This means any personal health information (PHI) shared between the patient and the healthcare provider is safe. 

Moreover, language services providers must ensure that their interpreting platforms are secure and meet HIPAA requirements. 

By complying with these regulations, medical interpreters and language services providers help healthcare organizations promote patient trust and confidence in the healthcare system.

Comparing Remote and In-Person Interpretation

Medical interpretation can be provided in two different ways, depending on the situation and availability of interpreters. These include remote interpretation and in-person interpretation. 

In-person interpretation involves the interpreter being physically present with the patient and the healthcare provider. This approach is best for complex medical situations, for those who may have a hard time with certain technology (e.g., for individuals who are blind), for young children, and when multiple people are present for an appointment (e.g., several family members). 

Remote interpretation is done through video or telephone. This approach is more flexible, cost-effective, and time-efficient. It’s best for interpreting in emergency situations, where it is not possible for the interpreter to be physically present, or for languages of lesser diffusion where on-site interpreters are simply not an option.

Approaches to Providing Medical Interpretation

When it comes to providing medical interpretation, there are a few modes of delivery to choose from depending on the needs of the healthcare system. 

Video Remote Interpretation

Video remote interpretation (VRI) provides a video connection between the interpreter, the patient, and the healthcare provider. VRI is an effective method when face-to-face interpretation isn’t possible. The interpreter can also read non-verbal cues, making the call flow easier for the interpreter to manage in some cases. 

Telephone Interpretation

Telephone interpretation is the most affordable method of medical interpretation. It involves a telephone interpreter facilitating a conversation between a patient and healthcare provider. Telephone interpretation can be effective in emergencies and when less common languages are requested.

On-Site Interpretation

On-site interpretation takes place in-person with patients, giving interpreters the ability to recognize nonverbal cues that telephone interpreters might miss. In-person interpretation services can help put patients at ease thanks to the physical presence of a friendly interpreter, something that’s more difficult through remote interpretations.

How Certified Languages International Can Help

Medical interpreting is a vital service that helps patients access the healthcare they need. By providing a clear and accurate translation of medical information, interpreters can help patients understand their condition, make informed decisions about their care, and undergo treatment plans.

There are a number of different ways to provide medical interpreting, including in-person, telephone, and video remote interpreting. The best method for a particular situation will depend on the needs of the patient and the resources available.

When choosing a language services provider, it’s important to make sure that they are qualified and experienced in providing medical interpreting services. That’s why you should trust Certified Languages International for your medical interpretation needs. With experts available in over 230 spoken languages and American Sign Language (ASL), CLI can help healthcare providers and patients achieve the best outcomes. 


What is a medical interpreter?

A medical interpreter is a trained professional who helps bridge the language gap between a healthcare provider and a patient who do not speak the same language. They are responsible for interpreting medical terminology and providing accurate and complete interpretations of the communication between a patient and a healthcare provider. This can include interpreting a patient’s medical history, symptoms, and treatment options to ensure the patient fully understands their care plan. Medical interpreters must adhere to strict standards of confidentiality and ethical behavior to preserve the privacy and dignity of the patient.

What are the pros and cons of being a medical interpreter?

Pros of being a medical interpreter include steady job growth, flexibility, and a sense of fulfillment. Cons of being a medical interpreter may include stress, ethical dilemmas, and vicarious trauma.

What is the difference between a medical translator and a medical interpreter?

A medical translator reproduces text like medical documents from one language to another. In contrast, a medical interpreter repeats spoken or signed dialogue from one language to another.