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How do interpreters and translators fit into the mix?

December 22, 2016

Have you ever traveled abroad for school, work, or vacation and gotten sick?  If so, was there anyone at the medical facility that spoke your language?  Did that make a difference?  How did you feel?  If this has not happened to you, just imagine being in foreign country, amid a medical emergency, and having no idea what’s going on around you.  In those instances, a medical interpreter is, and should be, called to assist with the communication between you and the healthcare team as they provide you with services that could potentially save your life. 


In the United States, this also happens.  The difference, however, is that the patients that present to hospitals and clinics are not on vacation.  They live in the United States, but cannot speak the language well enough to understand or communicate effectively.  The formal term for these persons is Limited English Proficient (LEP). 


An LEP person is defined as an individual who does not speak English as their primary language and has a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English.  According to an article by the Migration Policy Institute in 2013, the LEP population in the United States was 41%; which equals to approximately 61.6 million people (Zong, Batalova 2015).  That’s a lot of people that could potentially come into any healthcare facility and need medical care with a language barrier being the first and most important obstacle. 


For reasons that include a decrease in the number of readmissions, medical mistakes, and misunderstandings several mandates have gone into effect.  The most commonly referred to is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and more recently the Affordable Care Act Section 1557.   These mandates state a person cannot be discriminated against “because of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds or other Federal financial assistance (” and “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability in certain health programs or activities (” respectively. 


Interpreters and translators are people who have chosen to work side-by-side with the medical team to help facilitate communication between patients and providers to avoid medication reconciliation errors, clarify hospital discharge instructions, ensure the understanding of an informed consent, and understanding of surgical care (pre-, peri-, and post-op) consents and instructions- to name a few.  They also help clarify any questions or doubts patients and providers may have by making it possible to be understood by both parties.  Interpreters help protect the healthcare professionals and the organizations where they provide care by ensuring the medical information and instructions are rendered faithfully and as accurately as possible.  This makes for a better relationship between the patient and healthcare professional; it builds trust, confidence, empowers both the patients and providers, and provides for better use of resources.


Medical interpreters and translators are dedicated professionals that help to bridge the gaps of communication between healthcare professionals and the patients they serve in oral and written forms.  It is important to recognize the invaluable service these individuals provide and welcome them into the treatment team as the vital addition they are.  Interpreters are required to receive special training in medical terminology, HIPAA, follow a code of ethics and standards of practice, and participate in continuing education as part of the certification requirements. 


The interpreting profession is growing and expanding daily and interpreters are now available in multiple modalities including via phone, video, and on-site which makes caring for LEP patients and their families easier.  The method of delivery is not as important as building the trust and confidence between the patient and the healthcare team to ensure an effective outcome for all involved. 



Kamilah Torres, RMA, CMI is a Certified Medical Interpreter and Registered Medical Assistant.  She is a volunteer on the Diversity Committee for the Alabama Health Action Coalition and is the International Medical Interpreters Association Alabama State Chapter Vice-Chair.  Kamilah has worked in the medical field for over 20 years and is passionate about her role as a Certified Medical Interpreter.  She is working to increase awareness of the importance of ensuring patients of limited English proficiency receive care in their language, as well as helping healthcare professionals understand interpreters can be a valuable part of the healthcare team and protect them as well.  For any questions or comments, she can be reached at





Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova (2015, July 8) The Limited English Proficient Population in the United States. Retrieved from'


Civil Rights Requirements- A. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000d et seq. ("Title VI"). Retrieved from


Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Retrieved from


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