Medical Interpreter Career Profile

woman translating for patient in doctor's office
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A medical interpreter serves as a translator between a patient and a doctor to alleviate language barriers. Medical interpreters, or healthcare interpreters, are very valuable to physicians and medical facilities. Utilizing medical interpreters allows a physician to attract a broader patient base of international patients which may not be otherwise accessible. Additionally, medical interpreters may decrease the physician’s malpractice liability and risk. Bridging the language gap can decrease the opportunities for medical mistakes to happen.

Required Skills, Education, and Training 

Most interpreters have at least a high school diploma. A college degree is not required, but many interpreters and translators do have a college degree. A medical interpreter must speak fluently in at least two languages, normally English, and one other language. Medical interpreters must have an in-depth knowledge of medical terminology, and they should be prepared to be tested on medical terminology and language skills during the interview process. Some medical interpreters are trained or certified as medical assistants as well.

Some colleges and universities offer certificate programs for medical interpreters. For example, the University of Georgia offers a 30-hour course. Certificates are not typically required to be hired as a medical interpreter, but such a course could be very helpful for someone who is new to the field and trying to break into a career in medical interpreting.

Medical interpreters should have excellent verbal communication skills, be able to think on their feet to quickly and accurately express complex ideas and concepts.

Medical Translator vs. Medical Interpreter

Some employers may use these titles interchangeably. But the Bureau of Labor statistics differentiates a medical translator as someone who specializes in translating written documents, such as patient records or medical legal documents. A medical interpreter typically is hired for verbal communication skills.

Job Responsibilities 

Medical interpreters usually are present in the exam room with the patient. They must be comfortable discussing sensitive or personal issues, as well as be able to understand and present information of a scientific or technical nature. The interpreter will help the physician understand the history and physical information from the patient, as well as the symptoms and reason for the patient’s visit.

Additionally, an interpreter translates the physician’s questions and answers for the patient to understand and respond when necessary. The interpreter may also assist the physician or nurse as a medical assistant would, taking vital signs, updating the patients’ medical record, and other minor clinical or administrative duties, but the main focus is the communication.

Typical Work Week and Hours

The work hours for an interpreter can vary, but most work a typical 40-hour work week, Monday through Friday. According to the BLS, about 22% of medical interpreters are self-employed, working on a contract basis to meet the fluctuating demands. Full-time careers will become increasingly popular as demand increases with the growing international population of the US.

Interpreters can work in hospitals, clinics, or medical offices, with the greatest demand being in urban areas where the population tends to be more diverse. They may also work in courtrooms, conferences, and other non-medical settings.

Average Salary 

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, medical interpreters’ salaries can vary. The middle 50 percent of medical interpreters earned from $28,900 to about $52,200 annually. The average salary is a bit over $38,850 annually. This data is based on BLS information for 2008, which is the most recent information readily available.

Job Outlook 

Medical interpreters enjoy very high demand for their services as the country’s international population increases. According to the BLS, the need for medical interpreters is expected to grow by a whopping 22% over the ten-year period ending in 2018, which is considered “much faster than average” and represents the addition of more than 11,000 new medical interpreter positions during that time period.

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