The Increasingly Critical Role of Medical Interpreting


Did you study a foreign language in high school or college? According to many hospitals, that is enough to obtain an interpreting job assisting doctors. Being a patient in a hospital setting, it is vital to clearly understand the procedures that you will be going through. However, the access of translating services, specifically medical interpreting services, has been non-evident and in-adaquate for the patients use.

A study conducted by Emory University School of Medicine concluded that 76% percent of Spanish-speaking patients went without medical interpreting services in the Emergency Department. More recent data on the matter has been scarce, but many different accounts and reports suggest this data is still very solid.

Often times doctors will ask a patient’s bilingual family member to offer amateur, unstudied medical interpreting services. Having a non-certified person like a family member, act as an interpreter has life changing implications and should not be used as an alternative.

Although, it is not required to hold an interpreter certification to work in the medical field, it is highly desired by hospitals during the hiring process. Certifications can be acquired from both the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters or the National Board of Certification Commission for Healthcare and the Certification Commission for Healthcare. Additional certifications are available by obtaining a master’s in interpreting or certifications from universities around the country.

When a hospital doesn’t invest in qualified interpreters it can result in life or death situations. However, not all medical professionals see it that way. Some emergency room doctors say that using an interpreter may slow down the work in a highly-responsive environment. However, doctors are trained and conduct many protocols, and interpretation should be one as well.


Cases that Require Medical Interpreting Services

When it comes to a hospital or medical environment, it is imperative to understand surgery specifics, diagnoses or any other procedure. Interpreting is something that is central to the patient’s well-being along with life-changing implications.

An example of a lack of professional interpreting leading to a tragedy came with a nine-year old Vietnamese girl. Records had shown that the hospital was relying on the patient herself along with her 16-year old brother to conduct the interpreting.

A witness who allegedly saw the incident testified saying:  “the parents were not able to adequately understand and address [the patient’s] medical needs—the failure of the doctor and the facility to provide a professional medical interpreter was a substantial factor in causing [patient]’s death.”

Another case was investigated where two patients filed a lawsuit against Lifespan Corporation- a healthcare conglomerate in Rhode Island. The incident involved patients not being offered and provided proper certified interpreters. Officially, the lawsuit was filed by The National Association of the Deaf, Rhode Island Disability Law Center and Eisenberg & Baum LLP.

Both of the hospitals lacked clear communication on the medical conditions of the children according to the parents. Instead of providing certified interpreters, Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Rhode Island, used video remote interpreting. The development of video remote technology has been a tremendous innovation in our society. However, when it comes to interpreting to a patient in a serious situation, face-to-face interpreting is the most effective.

The two plaintiffs released a statement on the alleged case:  “We filed this lawsuit to bring attention to the very important need to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing individuals have the same access to healthcare” that all individuals are entitled to, said Caroline Jackson, a staff attorney for the National Association of the Deaf Law and Advocacy Center. “The laws we are enforcing have been on the books since 1973 and 1990, respectively,” and The National Association of the Deaf has seen many similar cases of lack of provisions for necessary medical communication, she added.

This is not the first time the state of Rhode Island has received reports of inadequately  incorporating certified interpreters.

“Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, hospitals in Rhode Island have neglected deaf patients by providing inadequate access to accommodations which infringe on Deaf individuals’ basic human rights,” said Todd Murano, former acting president of the Rhode Island Association of the Deaf, in a press release.

This case shows a lack of appreciation by the hospital to keep patients informed and educated on their medical diagnoses. Patients should be aware of their rights and see this case as a potential tragedy.


Laws and Regulations Around Medical Interpreting Services

According to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, “all private healthcare providers are required to provide interpreting services. The certified interpreters are obligated to work with deaf people as well”. Furthermore, “ Healthcare providers have a duty to provide effective communication using auxiliary aids and services that ensure that communication with people who have a hearing loss as effective as communication with others. “

Although fines and penalties vary case by case, evidence has been shown that judges do take violations of the ADA. This was shown when FedEx was fined $100,000, for not providing sign language interpreting services for a deaf employee.

Interpreting services have life-changing implications, especially in a medical environment. Awareness and understanding is crucial to a patient’s well-being. Hospitals not offering certified translators has become a massive issue and needs to be further addressed.


For hospitals to avoid legal action and prioritize the safety of patients, they should use the following steps as a guide:


  1. Research both local and nationwide translation/interpretation agencies to find a reliable LSP that you feel comfortable partnering with .
  2. Identify high volume, foreign languages spoken by patients that your hospital service frequently.
  3. Bring the consequences of not following the ADA to attention in your hospital, and work with a team to devise a budget you can set aside especially for this service.
  4. Do your due diligence with agencies during your search to make sure they properly vet their interpreters.
  5. Look for potential employees that have quality interpreting certifications.
  6. Insert protocols in the hospitals to make sure employees are well informed.
  7. Determine on average how often you service patients like this, so you can plan for how frequently you will need interpretation services.

About Language Connections:

Language Connections is one of the top language service companies in the US. Over the last 30 years, we’ve focused on providing the best business translation services, interpreting services, as well as interpreter training and customized language training programs. In addition to top-tier corporate language training, we offer certified corporate interpreters and professional business translation services in 200+ languages. Our network includes linguists with backgrounds in all major industries. They’re ready to meet your needs, whether they’re for technical translation services, legal translation, government translation services, international development translation services, education translation services, life sciences translation, or something else. Reach out to us today for a free quote on our cost-efficient and timely translation services, interpreters, or other linguistic services.

LC logo




Language Connections LLC
2001 Beacon Street, Suite 105,
Boston, MA 02135
Phone: +1-617-731-3510



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment