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avril 26, 2018 |

Why Is There a Shortage of Professional Medical Interpreters?

Medical interpreters are vital for high-quality medical care, as they allow doctors and patients to communicate efficiently, even though they speak different languages. Without a certified language specialist, people with limited English proficiency are more likely to encounter difficulties in making themselves understood by their doctors. So, why, then, is there a shortage of professional medical interpreters? 

Many specialists document the direct connection between working with a professional medical interpreter and the quality of the medical care provided to patients. The data shows that this service can positively influence the medical act.

Many hospitals still rely on bilinguals doctors, nurses, or family members for translation, as they lack certified medical interpreters. This solution puts people’s lives at risk, as bad or partial adaptations can lead to misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment.

Almost 15 years ago, around 30 percent of patients who didn’t speak English were suffering physical harm due to missing language services. Things are getting better, but American hospitals across the country are still far from providing all patients with language access.

In this article, we’re looking at what causes the shortage of professional medical interpreters in the US, and at some possible solutions to counter this issue.  

25 Million People in The US Don’t Speak English “Very Well”

One of the main reasons healthcare providers have a shortage of professional medical interpreters is the fact that the number of people who need this service grows faster than the number of certified specialists.

According to the US Census Bureau, 25 million people living in the US are Limited English Proficient (LEP). Many of them are less educated, live in poverty, and aren’t able to communicate with their doctors. In this context, having a medical interpreter can facilitate communication with patients.

But, hospitals can’t always provide their patients with this service. In 2015, the State of California had 738 certified medical interpreters, to serve 1.7 million people who spoke poor English. And this is just an example of many other states that also have a shortage of professional medical interpreters.

This situation makes things hard for both patients and healthcare providers, who are legally responsible for ensuring language access to all patients, regardless of what language they speak.

There Are Too Many Languages to Cover

With more people traveling and more expats living in the US, hospitals treat patients who speak between forty and sixty different languages. In this context, providing medical interpreters for all these languages is a challenge–due to the limited number of interpreters available and the high costs.

Healthcare providers can’t afford having in-house medical interpreters to facilitate communication in all languages spoken in the community they serve. So, they have to rely on alternative solutions to communicate with patients, such as relatives or bilingual personnel. In some cases, this approach is necessary, to be able to provide medical care in time.

The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters offers the credential in Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Korean, Cantonese, and Vietnamese. However, the population in the US who isn’t English proficient speaks many other languages, such as French, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Arabic, or Urdu, to mention some of them.

Not Anyone Can Be a Certified Medical Interpreter

Being bilingual isn’t enough to get certified as a medical interpreter. This profession requires specialized training in medical terminology and impeccable ethics, as these specialists gain access to personal information of patients.

Medical interpreters must have in-depth knowledge of both the source and the target language, with the ability to speak local dialects, in some situations. Furthermore, they should have excellent communication skills and the ability to work under stress.

Being a medical interpreter is a huge responsibility, as the life and the quality of the medical care of the patient depend on the accuracy of a translation.

Currently, the federal law states that all patients should have the right to language access, but every state has its regulations when it comes to how interpreters get certified. This situation allows hospitals and other healthcare providers to rely on non-certified interpreters in many cases.

Is There a Solution to the Shortage of Professional Medical Interpreters?

At first glance, the answer is simple: recruiting more medical interpreters. But getting people certified and providing them with decent working conditions require funds. Many states are looking to implement a certification program that would bring more qualified medical interpreters in the medical field.

Many medical interpreters believe that the first step to solve this issue is creating a uniform certification in medical interpreting. Such regulations would maintain high standards in this profession so that all patients can benefit from high-quality medical care.

Until authorities find the money to implement a program that gives all patients language access, hospitals can rely on alternatives to in-person medical interpretation:

Telephone interpretation – medical interpreters provide this service remotely, without being physically present where the medical act occurs. This way, a specialist can provide language services for more hospitals, in more geographical areas. Usually, specialists receive training to handle phone medical interpretation. However, the quality of this type of language service depends on more elements besides the interpreter’s skills and knowledge. The sound quality can influence the interpretation, as well.

Video interpretation – in this case, medical interpreters provide the service remotely, but through a video call that allows them to have visual contact with both the doctor and the patient. It’s easy to use, but it requires an excellent connection to provide patients with quality language services. Even in this case, technical details can influence the relationship between doctor, patient, and interpreter.

These two alternatives are cost-effective methods to respond to the shortage of professional medical interpreters. Better than that, they allow patients who speak more ‘exotic’ languages to receive access to quality healthcare, even when no specialist is living or working in that specific geographical area.

However, studies have shown that patients prefer in-person interpretation. So, hospitals and healthcare providers should contract professional medical interpreters to increase patient comfort. When this isn’t possible, video interpretation should be used as an alternative.