Finding the Right Healthcare Interpreter


The ATA Compass

Finding the Right Healthcare Interpreter

“Using an unqualified interpreter is like using a broken x-ray machine. You can’t get an accurate diagnosis,” says Esther Diaz, Secretary of the Texas Association of Healthcare Interpreters and Translators and Chairperson of the Advisory Committee on Qualifications for Healthcare Translators and Interpreters in Texas.

Bad experiences with healthcare interpreting usually result from working with a bilingual who isn’t a professional, adds Diaz. “When seeking a new doctor, you talk to doctors you trust and other patients who have a similar health condition and ask if they can recommend a qualified physician,” she notes. “Why not approach the search for a qualified interpreter with the same care? Don’t gamble on picking a name out of the yellow pages.”

Diaz recommends that hospitals and other healthcare providers take these steps to find qualified interpreters.

  1. Search online directories of professional translator and interpreter associations to find potential candidates. The American Translators Association maintains searchable, national directories of language service providers as well as links to local associations of translators and interpreters across the United States.
  2. Assess the candidate's language skills: be sure that she has a thorough command of English and her other language(s). Self-proclamation as a bilingual is not enough.
  3. Test the candidate’s knowledge of medical terminology.
  4. Test the candidate’s knowledge of the code of ethics and standards of practice for healthcare interpreters.
  5. Have the candidate demonstrate her mastery of established protocols. These include:
    • interpreting in the first person (Incorrect: “She says she’s had blinding
       headaches.” Correct: “I’ve had blinding headaches.”);
    • refraining from summarizing or changing the patient’s message; and
    • refraining from side conversations with patient or provider.
  6. Ask for credentials, references and/or other proof of experience. Ideally, the candidate should hold certification from a national or statewide program.

If you can’t implement this more rigorous process:

  1. Pay another organization to assess the candidate’s language and interpreting skills and medical knowledge.
  2. Ask for evidence of training and credentials. Ideally, the candidate should hold certification from a national or statewide program. Reliable certification programs include instruction in the code of ethics and standards of practice for healthcare interpreters as well as language skills and subject area knowledge.
  3. Ask for evidence of medical interpreting experience and references.

Certification programs

The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) now offer a national certification credential for healthcare interpreters. Their credentialing programs are separate but similar. Both national certification programs require the candidate to have experience before testing.

Washington State, California, and Massachusetts currently have statewide certification programs (for medical interpreters serving the Department of Social and Health Services, workers’ compensation hearings, and emergency rooms respectively). Other states are working on their own programs.

Interview conducted and condensed by Lillian Clementi