Medical Interpreter: Job Description and Education Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a medical interpreter. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and language requirements to find out if this is the career for you.

Essential Information

Medical interpreters provide language services to non-English-speaking patients to help them communicate with doctors, nurses and other medical staff. They might be employed by medical facilities or interpreter agencies, or they might choose to operate their own businesses. Medical interpreters need to have a high level of communication skill in both English and a foreign language. Earning a bachelor's degree in interpretation or a specific foreign language is common for aspiring interpreters, though certificate programs in medical interpretation are also available.

Required Education Bachelor's degree is typical; certificate programs are available
Other Requirements Language skills, knowledge of medical terminology
Projected Job Growth (2012-2022)* 46% for all interpreters and translators
Median Salary (2013)* $42,420 for all interpreters and translators

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Medical Interpreter Job Description

Medical interpreters work with non-English speaking patients in hospitals, physician's offices, clinics, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes and mental health clinics. They act as conduits between patients and medical professionals by listening to the professional and orally translating information into a patient's native language in layman's terms. The medical interpreter then translates the patient's response back to the professional, using proper medical terminology. Interpreters may translate such information as the reason for a medical visit, past medical history and family medical history, as well as explaining medical and surgical procedures, giving medical care instructions, providing drug information and scheduling follow-up appointments.

During the visit, cultural misunderstandings between a professional and patient may occur. Medical interpreters must anticipate these events and try to avoid them. Interpreters also are privy to sensitive information, so they must maintain patient confidentiality at all times.

Education Requirements for Medical Interpreters

Entry-level medical interpreter training usually begins in high school, where students are encouraged to take English, foreign language and biology classes. Some high schools offer cultural programs that allow students to study abroad, learning about a country's history, customs, cultural practices and language.

After high school, aspiring medical interpreters might choose to enroll in a 1-year medical interpreter certificate program at a community college. Topics of study are likely to include medical terminology, medical ethics, interpreting fundamentals and intercultural communication.

Another option is to earn a 4-year bachelor's degree at a college or university. Would-be medical interpreters might choose to complete a foreign language studies program that covers a number of languages or major in one particular language, such as Spanish or French. Additionally, some institutions offer singular foreign language programs with a concentration in interpreting studies, which allow students to take introductory and advanced foreign language courses in conjunction with specialized classes in medical interpretation. Students interested in operating their own medical interpreter agencies also might benefit from courses in small business administration, bookkeeping, computer applications, marketing and advertising.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the broader occupation category of interpreters and translators, which includes medical interpreters, was projected to increase by 46% during the 2012-2022 decade. The BLS reported in May 2013 that the median annual salary for interpreters and translators was $42,420.

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