ULG’s Language Solutions Blog

The Importance of Qualified Medical Interpreters


In 1980 Willie Ramirez was taken to a Florida hospital in a coma.

His family members explained to doctors that the 18-year-old was “intoxicado,” in Spanish, meaning poisoned. An interpreter misunderstood, instead believing the family meant Ramirez was intoxicated.

Medics assisted Ramirez as if he were experiencing a drug overdose, when he was actually suffering from a brain hemorrhage. The misdiagnosis resulted in Ramirez becoming paralyzed.

Ramirez’s case is a perfect example of the danger posed by a lack of certified interpreters in a medical setting. Too often, bilingual employees or family members act as de facto medical interpreters in place of trained professionals.

Healthcare interpreters find themselves in a number of different situations, dealing with patients with varied cultural and linguistic backgrounds. These variables accent the need for experienced and competent language professionals in hospitals and clinics.

Credentialed Professionals

Medical interpreters who have successfully undergone linguistic and interpreter ethics training through an accredited certification body are considered to be certified. These interpreters are also trained in medical terminology in order to navigate the sometimes complicated jargon associated with the healthcare field.

Regulations for hospitals obtaining certified interpretation services are complicated due to the fact that in most cases interpretation is required by law, but the necessary credentials of interpreters are not always spelled out. And although research has shown that amateur interpreting leads to negative patient outcomes for those with Limited English Proficiency (LEP), the use of employees as interpreters still takes place.

Studies have shown that inadequate medical interpretation can be responsible for longer inpatient stays for LEP patients and adverse physical outcomes.

Medical interpretation can happen in person, over the phone or through remote video interpreting. In-person interpretation is preferred as this method allows for linguists to observe body language that may assist in deciphering spoken language.

Interpretation can also take place simultaneously or consecutively. In simultaneous interpretation, an interpreter starts speaking right after a native speaker, deciphering his or language with just seconds of delay. Consecutive interpretation, on the other hand, refers to an interpreter speaking after a native speaker has finished.

More Than Just Speaking The Language

There are a number of characteristics that make for a strong interpreter in a healthcare setting. Most importantly, these language professionals should be extremely skilled bilinguals with a sound understanding of the medical field.

However, a number of factors play into successful medical interpretation other than spoken language. When recruiting an interpreter, it’s best to look for someone who is from the same region as a patient to make sure they’ll share similar cultural norms. Additionally, interpreters should speak the same dialect, not only the same language, as a patient.

Gender can also influence how successful an interpretation session is. For example, it would be best to hire a female interpreter in the case of an LEP patient who is pregnant. Likewise, a doctor’s visit revolving around a man’s reproductive health should be interpreted by a male. Having a same gender interpreter in these situations would probably be more comfortable for the patient.

At the same time, wearing clothes that could be distracting while interpreting is not a good idea. Being as neutral as possible is recommended.

A Willingness to Reach Out

Having competent medical interpretation is the first step in preventing tragedies like that of Willie Ramirez. Speaking the same language as patients is not only necessary for better patient outcomes, but it also shows a willingness to reach out to cultures other than our own.

The more information medical practitioners, interpreters and patients have about healthcare interpretation, the more likely it is that the experience will be beneficial to everyone involved.