The MiTio Blog

Transform your bilingual ability into a vibrant career with our expert insights in medical interpreting, certification programs, obtaining employment, and much more. 

What is a Medical Interpreter & How To Become One -

Posted by Dr. Nelva Lee on Jul 15, 2020 2:06:00 PM
Dr. Nelva Lee


Imagine vacationing in a foreign country and having a medical issue that requires immediate attention. As a non-native speaker, your native language skills are limited, and translation apps aren’t clearly communicating your needs to the staff at the local hospital. Take for instance how “hot” in English, translates to “caliente” “caluroso” and “cálido”, depending on the context. Rather than sit in agony while you try to explain what’s wrong or end up with the wrong treatment because your condition is misunderstood, you can request a medical interpreter to assist you. 

What is a Medical Interpreter?

What is the Role of a Medical Interpreter?

A medical interpreter is someone who helps non-English speakers communicate with doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. They may operate as an independent business owner or work for a medical facility or an interpreting agency. As the intermediary between the patient and provider who are fluent in two different languages,  the interpreter ensures all patients receive quality, patient-centered care regardless of their native tongue, courtesy of their understanding of context, and cultural differences.


Medical interpreters help assure the sick that they are safe and will be cared for appropriately, as they are often fearful due to the language barrier. As the person who understands both the patient and medical staff, they help to build trust between the parties, which is helpful to ease stress and discomfort associated with cultural differences. They are useful in any number of healthcare settings, from the emergency room to mental health clinics and everywhere in between.


Healthcare interpreters may be used repeatedly with patients who require long-term care, making them essential to overall care. In the case of less common languages where there are not as many interpreters available, services may be ongoing indefinitely.

What’s the Difference Between a Medical Interpreter and a Medical Translator?

While some use these titles interchangeably, there is a clear difference between the two. A healthcare interpreter is hired for their verbal communication skills. On the other hand, a medical translator handles translating written content, including legal documents and medical records.


Interpreters not only need to know medical terms but have to have the language skills to correctly interpret not only the words but also the context around what both the patient and his or her care providers are saying, as the patient’s outcome depends on it. They not only document the health issue, patient history, and family history but also explain medical and surgical procedures and aftercare instructions.


Both career paths require fluency in English and at least one other foreign language. The Interpreters also have to have a working knowledge of medical terminology, and other technical terms in both languages as mistakes in medical interpretation could lead to legal issues.

Why Would You Need a Medical Interpreter?

If you are somewhere other than where your native language is spoken and do not have the skills to communicate in the native language, you need a medical interpreter to serve as the liaison between you and your medical team. Even if you have someone else with you, such as a child or other family member who can speak both languages, it can be difficult to properly convey the correct information. Without accurate information about what’s going on - current symptoms, medical history, family history, etc. there is the potential for malpractice suits or other problems. 


If a doctor gives a prescription for a topical medication that is misunderstood to be an oral medication, the patient could easily end up in the ER. Or, the patient’s spouse asks what’s been said, and an untrained interpreter indicates that the patient is pregnant. Instead of being wonderful news, the spouse, who’s had a vasectomy, is now convinced his wife has been unfaithful.

medical interpreter

What Does it Take to Become a Medical Interpreter?

Healthcare interpreters often have a background in life sciences, though this is not a strict requirement. In most cases, you must have a college degree from any US college or have a high school diploma from a high school where English is the primary language or is an American school abroad. You must also be able to prove proficiency in the target language, either through high school graduation, college degree, college credit, or oral exam. 


It’s necessary to be at least bilingual, but if you speak more than two languages, that can improve your prospective job options. To ensure your bilingual status, you must pass the pre-requisite bilingual test administered by Language Testing International (LTI). Many medical interpreter training programs, including the ones here at MiTio, Inc. you must earn an “Advanced” score to be eligible for the certificate programs.


Beyond showing proficiency in both oral and written skills in both English and another language, it’s also necessary to complete a medical interpreting course. The basic course explains medical terminology in English and the target language, along with standard medical practices and professional ethics. 


After completing an accredited course, it’s possible to take a certification exam with the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) or the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). 


The NBCMI provides full certification in six languages: Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, French, Russian, Vietnamese, and Korean. The certification is valid for five years. Continuing education is required to maintain certification.


The CCHI provides certification for Arabi, Mandarin, and Spanish. The certification is valid for four years. Continuing education is required to maintain certification. Unless you're fluent in languages other than English and Spanish, you'll have to choose one national certification over the other, as Spanish is the only language where certification is available through both organizations.


MiTio’s certification and diploma programs are accredited and sufficient for taking the certification exam with either certification organization. 


Those who are interested in working as an interpreter through their own agency may also consider taking courses in business administration, bookkeeping, marketing, and advertising, and computer applications, to ensure they have the skills necessary to operate their own business. It's also possible to join the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), the only national registry of certified medical interpreters in the U.S.

medical interpreter salary

How Much Does a Medical Interpreter Make?

According to Glassdoor, medical interpreters earn an average of $42,449 base salary, with an average of $5,195 in additional cash compensation that may include cash bonuses, tips, commissions, or profit-sharing. The salary ranges from $28,000 on the low end to $62,000 on the high end. Salary earnings are based on experience and languages that are spoken.


According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the occupation category of interpreters and translators, which includes medical interpreters and translators, the job outlook is expected to increase 19% during the 2018-2028 decade, so there is plenty of potential for those who are interested in the career.


Many medical interpreters start gaining experience by joining a language-service provider’s vendor network to provide interpreting services. We offer on-demand interpreting services, so after you complete our 160-hour diploma program and earn certification, you can join our network and work from home.


Hospitals and other medical providers work with language service providers to save time and money. They can get access to top bilingual and multilingual interpreters to help them improve their patient care, without scrambling to find someone. Whether you work in person or digitally, being on time for appointments and keeping a neutral demeanor can go a long way to building a strong relationship with clients.


Topics: Medical Interpreter, Medical Interpreting, education