Medical Interpretation Services: More Than a Service but a Legal Right

A vital pillar in healthcare is proper communication between the patient and healthcare professional.

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Without it, patients cannot receive the right diagnosis and proper medication and treatment. But this notion is being put under the test everyday under the scope of providing medical interpretation services to patients with limited English abilities.

What Is Medical Interpreting?

medical-interpreter
Image source: languagedirect.org

Generally speaking, medical interpreting is a form of interpretation services employed in the healthcare sector. Medical interpreters can provide medical interpretation services either on-site, over the phone, or via a VoIP platform such as Facetime or Skype.

They’re either offered as in-house services in healthcare centers or contracted from a professional translation agency. Professional translation agencies offer a wide range of language services and not just translation services as their name suggests. But in case you’re curious, they also offer medical translation services. More on this later.

The reason why they can’t bring in general interpreters is that medical interpretation is a very critical and specialized form of interpretation. Family and friends also cannot substitute as medical interpreters. But they’re allowed only in highly specific and critical situations when no other qualified interpreter is available and if the medical situation at hand is dire. Take a look at this helpful resource on hiring the perfect interpreter. You can see that for specific situations, interpreters must have the appropriate specialized knowledge.

In this case, medical interpreters must be familiar with extensive medical terminology and concepts. They assist patients in accurately translating their symptoms, medical history, prescribed medication, and anything else relevant to the situation. This is to ensure that any diagnosis and treatment is based on completely accurate information. Since a single mistranslation can have dire consequences depending on the case, only medical interpreters are up for the job.

What Is the Difference Between a Medical Interpreter and a Medical Translator?

Although they both engage in language translation, they actually are completely different in many ways. They both need advanced language skills in their chosen language pair (ex. English to Spanish, Spanish to English) but it’s how they employ it that sets them apart. Generally speaking, professional translators work in a different environment and have different skills and resources from that of professional interpreters.

1. Medical Interpreters and Translators Have Different Work Environments

General translation services are focused entirely on paperwork. You guessed it, medical translators mostly deal with medical document translation. Medical documents comprise the patient’s health records, medical history, vaccination records, test results, etc. But medical translation services are also requested by pharmaceutical companies, the medical device industry, in healthcare marketing, and etc.

General translators mostly work alone but also coordinate with other translators for big projects and tight deadlines. They also have to utilize translation resources such as glossaries and machine-assisted translation software to augment their translation productivity and accuracy.

On the other hand, general interpreters provide language translation on-site. The only resource they can rely on is their knowledge and experience. You can just imagine the pressure that interpreters of all kinds around the world face everyday, particularly during high-stakes situations such as business meetings, contract negotiations, and medical diagnoses.

2. Medical Interpreters Need More Qualifications, Training, and Certification

The medical interpreting profession is highly regulated which means they need to pass accredited training programs with specific required hours.  They also need to earn the required certification to be considered as a legally recognized medical interpreter.

But no one can just get in these training programs. First off, they need to show stellar language skills in their language pair specialization. Medical experience and/or medical background is not officially required but highly preferable.

The extensive medical terminology, medical code of ethics, national guidelines on healthcare, and other subject matter nuances in medicine would be easier for those with medical backgrounds to digest compared to someone who is starting from scratch. But there are still those who become excellent medical interpreters with no medical background. They devoted the extra time and commitment to studying medical resources and honing their language and interpretation skills.

3. Medical Interpreters Also Need Soft Skills

Another reason why interpretation is a tricky line of work is that on-site translation requires cross-cultural empathy and communication skills. Medical interpreters are not exempted from having these skills. Patients with limited English skills have genuine fear and anxiety should they be prescribed the wrong treatment or medication, including the possibility of hearing devastating news related to their health or their loved ones’.

It is the medical interpreter’s job to empathize with the patients. In fact, they’re also required to be familiar with the varying cultural and societal beliefs on health issues. Some cultures express great shame when admitting one has a certain medical condition. Thus, foreign patients from these cultures will not disclose it immediately to their designated healthcare professional.

Are Medical Interpretation Services Guaranteed Legally?

It’s clear that language barriers are a significant obstacle for many patients. But is the notion outlined and enforced by existing laws? The U.S., in particular, has done quite a lot in recognizing and legalizing the right for patients with limited English ability to both medical services and medical language services.

Specific legislatures include the Title VI Of The Civil Rights Act Of 1964, former U.S. President Clinton’s Executive Order 13166, and the Affordable Care Act. These laws outlined  tenets that specify that no patient should be denied healthcare based on their race, color, sex, and limited language abilities.

Revised legislature also emphasizes the affordability of language services to ease their burden when medical expenses alone can already be financially crippling. Although it is protected on paper, enforcing it is another issue.

The Trouble in Enforcing The Right to Medical Language Services

Providing medical language services does cost money, and not all states are as fortunate compared to wealthier states. That also goes for healthcare centers that operate deep within the state. They’re not as lucky as city hospitals with more than ample funding.

To add to this burden is that many healthcare centers across the U.S. face critical staff shortages such as nurses and doctors. Thus, investing in more language services but might seem to be a priority for many American healthcare centers.

Take a look at this compelling article that highlights the ongoing scarcity in medical interpreters for even common language pairs, particularly ones with Spanish to English translation skills. Although finding a general Spanish translator or interpreter is relatively easy, finding one qualified to work in the medical industry considerably narrows the talent pool.

You can see the same story in the U.K and the European Union. They indeed have their own legal provisions that protect the rights of foreign patient’s access to healthcare and language services. But their healthcare centers also struggle to find enough medical interpreters and enough funding to request for medical interpretation services.

Meeting the Growing Demand for Medical Interpreters: Final Takeaway

Access to healthcare is a universal human right and no one ought to be denied healthcare due to language barriers. But properly enforcing that noble notion is fraught with complex dilemmas. With the rise in medical tourism and the vast migrant population, healthcare centers need more and more medical interpreters each year.

It gets even more complicated when readily accessible medical interpreters such as Spanish to English medical interpreters can’t cater to uncommon regional languages. The situation has become so desperate that many hospitals have improvised by using Google translate or any other free online software. They even informally allow family and friends as substitute as medical interpreters. As to how many hospitals that actually do this is unclear as they don’t usually report these instances.

Even though the law says that only qualified medical interpreters are allowed, the law also says that they cannot deny a patient’s access to healthcare services. The debate goes on how healthcare policymakers can meet the demand for medical interpreters and also regulate the quality for medical interpreters.

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