The Crucial Role of the Medical Interpreter in Assisting Nurses

About 25.1 million people are considered Limited English Proficiency (LEP) in the US. It's a major problem for health professionals, especially nurse practitioners. Because how can they provide high-quality service if they can't establish clear communication and trust?

Today, we'll discuss the challenges of language barriers and how the medical interpreter can bridge these gaps. To learn more about this, keep on reading!

Detrimental Effects of Language Gaps between Nurse Practitioners and Patients

Several studies have shown the negative effects of language gaps in the medical community. In 2016, the PMC even published a research paper from the perspective of nurse practitioners. It reported the frustration of both nurses' and patients' experiences of language gaps.

It discussed how LEP patients reported having a higher dissatisfaction rate for patient-centered care than native English speakers. The reason for this was due to language barriers between nurse practitioners and patients.

The same article by PMC stated that many nurses had developed a system to overcome language gaps. Some have created visual aids, used Google Translate, and asked for English-speaking family members' help. But, it wasn't enough to assuage frustrations caused by language gaps.

For nurses facing language gaps, it can be troublesome to look for interpreters every time they communicate with their patients. Even for patient nurses, having no clear communication can hinder trust and their overall performance.

Even though we have translation technology, like Google Translate, it's not enough. These technologies still lack the cultural context in languages, leading to misunderstandings. Relying on family members to facilitate interpreting for their loved ones has been documented to present errors.

Professional medical interpreters have been shown to decrease these incidents of disparities. However, they are seldom used to mitigate the issues caused by language gaps. It's problematic because they are the key to ensuring quality health care to LEP patients.

How Medical Interpretation Bridges Language Gaps

Yet, recently, the service of remote interpreters has been on the rise due to the pandemic. The New Yorker wrote an article entitled, "The lonely, vital work of medical interpreters." It discussed how the language gaps in the healthcare industry intensified due to Covid-19.

Interpreters are trained not to edit the words of the medical professionals and LEP patients. But, there are instances where interpreters did not follow protocol and altered some information.

Even with these few incidents, interpreters are still important in bridging these gaps. They ensure LEP patients and medical practitioners understand each other. It's crucial that medical practitioners know the LEP patient's medical background and for LEP patients to give consent to medical treatments.

The challenge a medical interpreter faces is making medical terms understandable. At the same time, they have to consider the cultural nuances in interpreting the explanation of nurses and doctors. For example, the verb "tragar" can mean "swallow" in Guatemalan Spanish. But, for Mexican Spanish speakers, "tragar" could insult them.

Sometimes, certain English words have no direct translations. Like the words "dialysis" and "vaccination," interpreters would have to give a thorough explanation to the LEP patient about these common medical terms.

In some instances, interpreters that deal with rare and indigenous languages and dialects create new words for common medical terms. Wuqu' Kawoq, a non-profit organization, provides medical interpretation and aid to Mayan indigenous communities. Because the Kaqchikel language doesn't have a translation for Diabetes, they created their own word, "kab'kïk'el," which means "sweet blood."

Wuqu' Kawoq did this to help Kaqchikel diabetic patients to better explain to their loved ones why certain foods and lifestyles are removed from their lifestyle. 

The Expertise of a Medical Interpreter

Now that we explained why medical interpretation is our best solution in overcoming language gaps between medical practitioners. Let's discuss the requirements in becoming one.

To get an insight on how someone can work in medical interpretation, we interviewed Tomedes, a translation company that works closely with the healthcare industry, explained that those working in medical interpretation need to be fluent in two or more languages when listening and relaying messages in multiple languages. Besides being proficient in several languages, a medical interpreter must be certified by healthcare departments and agencies.

In the US, certified interpreters must be accredited by the National Board for Certified Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) or Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). They both require applicants to be 18+, with at least a high school diploma or have at least forty hours of training in medical interpretation.

Whereas the CCHI requires at least forty hours of programs, the NBCMI requires applicants to have a high educational degree. For example, they should have a Bachelor's, Master's, or Ph.D. degree. Applicants can get Cantonese, Russian, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, and Mandarin certifications. They'll need to take an oral and written examination.

As for those who want to interpret in other languages not mentioned above, applicants can apply for CCHI. They will have to take a computer-based, multiple-choice exam. The test will have a hundred questions about medical interpretation.

CCHI's oral examinations will be English, Arabic, Mandarin, and Spanish. After they pass, they still have to take continuous thirty-two hours of education for the next four years.

As you can see, the accreditation and certification of interpreters can take up several years. And so, it's wise to get support and expertise from a medical interpreter if you're experiencing language gaps.

Tips on How You Can Efficiently Work with a Medical Interpreter

I have written below some tips on how you can efficiently work with a medical interpreter, as follows:

  • Because of the pandemic, many interpreters have become remote workers. Through using devices like your phone and iPad, hospitals and healthcare institutions can start having “video-interpreting stations.” You can use iPads on movable platforms with speakers to better hear and communicate with the interpreter.
  • We advise that you get to know an interpreter before facing the patient. In an emergency, be sure to get a medical interpretation from a language service provider you have worked with.
  • Be sensitive to cultural issues and respect the expertise of the interpreter.
  • Please talk at an even pace. Stop now and then so that your interpreter can keep up with you. It decreases any misunderstandings.
  • Give your medical interpreter enough time to process what you or your LEP patient have said. They need time to restructure sentences in a way that you or your LEP patient can understand. Thinking in a certain language is different from speaking it.


Language gaps affect the quality of healthcare LEP patients will receive when it comes to healthcare. Despite technological advances, medical interpretation is still the best option in ensuring that nothing gets lost in translation.