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How to Work with a Health Care Interpreter

You may need a health care interpreter if you do not understand the language at your child’s hospital or clinic.

It is important that you know information about your child’s diagnosis and treatment. You make many decisions.

In the United States, you have a legal right to have free interpretation services for accurate communication and safety. Federal law requires interpretation services for patients and families with limited English proficiency. The laws may differ in other countries.

Ask your care team to provide interpretation services if you need them.

The type of service can vary. All health care interpreters must be certified.

Your hospital or clinic may have:

  • Certified medical interpreter (CMI) /Certified healthcare interpreter (CHI™)
  • Qualified interpreter
  • Qualified bilingual interpreters
  • Video interpreters
  • Audio interpreters (LanguageLine Solutions®)
  • Contractor interpreters

What does a health care interpreter do?

A health care interpreter works with patients, family caregivers, and health care providers to make sure they understand each other. An interpreter converts one spoken language into another. An interpreter may also help improve understanding of cultural beliefs.

An interpreter can ensure: 

  • More accurate diagnoses and treatment plan
  • Improved understanding of treatment plan
  • Fewer repeated visits
  • Fewer difficulties with following the treatment plan
  • Decreased risk for serious medical events and hospital stays
  • Answers to questions you may have
  • Less anxiety, worry, and fears 

Tips and tricks for working with a health care interpreter

Here are some helpful tips and tricks for working with a medical interpreter: 

  • Speak at a normal tone and speed.
  • Ask 1 question at a time.
  • Speak 1 sentence at a time.
  • Allow the interpreter time to finish speaking.
  • Speak directly to the health care provider. 
  • Repeat information that you want to make sure is understood.
  • Ask questions if you need more information.
  • Ask the interpreter to orally interpret forms that are not provided to you in your native language. 
  • Be patient.

Concerns with using untrained interpreters

A patient, family, friends, untrained staff, or children under 18 should not serve as an interpreter. Untrained interpreters may increase confusion and make errors.

Children should never be used as interpreters except in the event of an emergency. They may not understand complex topics.

The National Standards for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services states that failure to provide these interpretation services for you when necessary is considered discriminatory and illegal. 

Do not be afraid to request interpretation services.

Key Points

  • In the United States, you have a legal right to have free language interpreter services if you need them.
  • It is important that you understand your child’s diagnosis, treatment, and care.
  • Types of services can vary. You may speak to an interpreter in person, over the phone, or by video conference.
  • Only use certified interpreters.

Reviewed: February 2023