A medical interpreter is simply defined as someone who translates diagnosis, prescriptions, and other medical matters to a patient who doesn’t speak the doctor’s language.
A medical interpreter’s role is crucial and delicate. They are expected to relay a message to the patient regarding the observations of a specialist in a factual and accurate manner but also considering the cultural language differences that may arise between the doctor and patient. It is expected that all the findings, observations, and recommendations of the specialist will be translated into a language that a patient will understand. Patients who can’t speak nor understand the doctor’s language are often scared and hesitant to open up due to limited language capability or lack of understanding that can result in misdiagnosis, confusion, anger, or inability to administer the correct treatment.
It is also important that medical interpreters act with the highest ethical behavior to transmit a message from a doctor to the patient and vice versa without losing context.
There is a shortage of medical interpreters in the healthcare industry. Instead of hiring medical interpreters, hospitals often hire bilingual doctors, nurses, or medical staff to assist in translating. In some cases, it becomes the responsibility of a patient’s family members to interpret on behalf of the specialist. Hospitals can’t always provide the interpretation service to the patients due to a shortage of medical interpreters who can do the job. In the United States for example, as of 2013, there are more than 25 million who were considered as Limited English Proficient (LEP). However, in California, they were only 738 certified medical practitioners to serve 1.7 million people who cannot speak the English language. This huge difference in numbers can be overwhelming to the medical industry.
One of the major issues is having too many languages that need to be covered and translated to. Hiring medical interpreters to assist the medical facility even just for the common language of the hospital population can turn out to be expensive. From Russian to Arabic, to French and Korean, there are many languages that need to be covered, and hiring medical interpreters for each one will definitely cost money.
It is also not enough that a person is bilingual to be a medical interpreter. The candidate needs to undergo specialized training in medical terminologies and is required to have the highest ethical standard since he/she will have access to personal and confidential patient information. The person should have a strong command of the source and the target language to ensure that he/she can relay the message accurately since the quality of care that a patient will receive depends on the accuracy of translation that the medical interpreter can provide.
It is also expected that medical interpreters will be compassionate, can provide excellent support to the doctor and patient, and capable of working under stress.