The Role and Benefits of Healthcare Interpreters in a Medical Environment

Female on-site healthcare interpreter ties a medical mask on her face. She's wearing scrubs and a white surgical cap with red dots.
Source: SJ Objio from Unsplash

A routine health checkup can be stressful. Maybe it’s been a few years since your last one, and you’re feeling anxious thinking about the worst-case scenario. But when you don’t speak the same language as your doctor? That can quickly become distressing, if not impossible. 

For patients who aren’t fluent in English, healthcare interpreters play an integral role in their medical care team. 

They help make sure limited English proficient (LEP) patients aren’t just receiving treatment, but have a voice and agency in their own health decision-making.

What do healthcare interpreters do?

You may be thinking, “Aren’t interpreters just bilingual speakers?” 

Yes, they are! … and so much more.

Healthcare interpreters help patients and medical professionals who don’t speak the same language communicate. They are fluent in two or more languages, but this is where their skill set differentiates from a bilingual individual. 

Medical interpreters are trained in proper interpreting techniques, like following the code of ethics, note-taking, asking for repetition, use of first person, and so on. 

Interpreting in healthcare environments requires a high level of sensitivity and accuracy. These professionals hold specialized knowledge of medical terms — everything from pharmaceuticals and medication dosages to pediatrics and behavioral health. 

Healthcare interpreters can lead to better patient outcomes, higher patient satisfaction, and lower rates of hospital readmissions. 

Types of healthcare interpreters

Just like many other professions, healthcare interpreters can either be employees of an organization or independent contractors.

Staff medical interpreters work directly for a hospital or healthcare organization, whereas independent contract medical interpreters work for themselves. They can contract directly with a healthcare system, a language service provider, or both.

Staff interpreters typically work a set shift and their managers give them their assignments. Contract interpreters can work whenever they want and take any call they want. 

Despite these two differences, both staff and independent contract interpreters work in a variety of settings and environments. 

Related: How Medical Interpreters Can Make Healthcare More Equitable for LEP Patients

Where they work

Healthcare interpreters are used in any setting in which a patient needs an interpreter to communicate with medical personnel. 

This includes: 

  • Medical clinics
  • Mental health facilities
  • Dentist offices
  • Hospital rooms
  • Intensive care units
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Healthcare administrative offices

You can find them basically everywhere! 

They’re also patched into call centers — for example, if a non-English-speaking person calls in with questions about aspects of their health insurance coverage or to make an appointment. 

How they work

They work in three ways:

  • Over the phone — These interpreters remotely connect to the conversation from a telephone. Medical providers use a speakerphone or dual-handset phone to communicate with their LEP patient and the interpreter.
  • On video — These interpreters join healthcare interactions using video technology. This allows a face-to-face connection from a remote location.
  • In person — These interpreters work on-site, sitting in the same room as the people they’re helping communicate.

For interpreters who provide services remotely over phone or video, they typically work from a home office or a call center. Sometimes large healthcare systems will also have their own interpreter call center, with staff interpreters who work in person as well as take video and/or phone calls from a remote location on the premises. 

Related: A Texas Healthcare System Innovates to Deliver Interpreting Services during COVID

Connecting patients to healthcare 

Everyone deserves to access healthcare in the language they feel most comfortable communicating in. And remember: Providing interpreter services for LEP patients isn’t just a courtesy — it’s required under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act

CLI is invested in helping organizations — from large healthcare systems to smaller clinics — communicate with patients when and where you need it. We provide 24/7 access to thousands of qualified healthcare interpreters in 230+ languages.

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