How Do I Become a Medical Interpreter?

Updated on June 15, 2020
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Geri McClymont has been working as a freelance medical interpreter since 2013 and obtained her certification through NBCMI in July 2015.

The medical interpreter profession is growing rapidly.
The medical interpreter profession is growing rapidly. | Source

A Fast-Growing Occupation

If you're bilingual and are considering becoming a medical interpreter in your language pair in the U.S., I have good news: The medical interpreter profession is exploding.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for interpreters is expected to grow 29 percent from 2014 to 2024, which is a faster growth rate than the average for all other occupations combined.

This article will address:

  • What medical interpreters do
  • Modes of interpreting
  • Services offered
  • Required training
  • National certification
  • Why your level of education matters
  • How to get involved in your local medical interpreters organization (and how it can help you)

What is your main concern about becoming a medical interpreter?

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What Is Medical Interpreting?

Medical interpreters function as conduits and clarifiers between medical providers and patients by accurately interpreting oral communication from the first language to the second language back and forth between them.

Interpreters in the medical field must have a thorough knowledge of medical terminology in both languages. They must have cultural awareness and advocate for patients when necessary. They're expected to adhere to a national code of ethics for interpreters in health care and to national standards of practice for interpreters in health care.

Medical interpreters work in all specialty areas, and they work across a wide range of medical facilities including hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and mental health clinics.

Interpreters in health care must be excellent listeners. To accurately interpret all communication they hear, they must also be attentive to non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language.

Cultural awareness refers to the ability to understand the beliefs, values, and ways of thinking of people from different cultures.

Some Specialty Areas in Which Medical Interpreters Work

vascular surgery
mental health
speech therapy
physical therapy
occupational therapy

Modes of Medical Interpreting

  • Simultaneous Interpreting: The medical interpreter interprets as he listens to the speakers. There is no room for pause as the conversation between the respective parties must continue without interruptions. This mode of interpreting is most commonly seen in conferences and presentations with large audiences.
  • Consecutive Interpreting: The medical interpreter interprets when the speaker pauses. The interpreter may take notes while listening, and possibly ask the speakers for clarification to ensure the accuracy of the intended message. This mode of interpreting is most commonly seen in medical facilities.

While medical interpreters generally use both modes of interpreting during assignments, consecutive interpreting is used most often.

Medical Interpreting Services

  • On-Site Interpreting (OSI): Interpreters are physically present at the location of the assignment and are therefore able to both see and hear the parties they interpret for.
  • Over-the-Phone Interpreting (OPI): Interpreters speak with the designated parties only by phone and are therefore unable to see them. OPI requires strong listening skills without the aid of visual cues.
  • Video Remote Interpreting (VRI): Interpreters use a camera and microphone to communicate with the designated parties. VRI enables the interpreter to both see and hear the speakers, and to pick up on non-verbal cues that are missed with OPI.

How Do I Become a Medical Interpreter?

You Must Complete an Accredited Medical Interpreter Training Course

To become a medical interpreter, you must complete a 40-hour minimum accredited medical interpreter training course.

Find a training program that's accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and by the Commission for Medical Interpreter Education (CMIE).

You Must Demonstrate Proficiency in Your Language Pair

To qualify for a medical interpreting training course, you must demonstrate native or near native-level proficiency in both English and a second language.

Accredited medical interpreter training programs will request evidence of your proficiency in both languages as part of their initial screening process.

They may ask for school transcripts showing the countries where you attended high school or college and the languages your classes were taught in.

They will also likely require that you pass an oral language proficiency exam in one or both of your spoken languages.

Take the training through a local agency if you can. Interpreting agencies often offer accredited medical interpreter training. Contact well-respected language agencies in your area, or visit their websites, to find out if they do.

Taking the training through a local, reputable agency can be very helpful as it may open the door for employment opportunities with that agency later; language companies are more likely to offer you work if you've successfully completed their medical interpreter course.

Even if they don't need interpreters in your language pair when you're looking for work, they're more likely to contract you in the future over other interpreters who have taken a training elsewhere.

Some training programs are more widely recognized. It's important to be aware that some medical interpreter training programs may be more widely accepted by some agencies and medical facilities than others.

For example, in Colorado, many language agencies and medical facilities prefer to hire interpreters with the Bridging the Gap training.

Obtain your certificate of completion. Most training programs take several months to complete, and once you successfully pass, you're awarded a certificate of completion. You are now officially a medical interpreter!

Certificate and Certification: What's the Difference?

You can obtain a certificate for successfully completing a medical interpreter training program. You obtain certification by passing a national exam for medical interpreters.

Become a Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI)

Once you've successfully completed an accredited medical interpreter training program, you qualify for national certification.

Although many language agencies and medical facilities do hire interpreters without national certification, an increasing number of them are raising the bar and requiring that their interpreters—both in-house and independent contractors—be certified.

Obtaining certification is a way to distinguish yourself from other medical interpreters and can give you an edge in getting hired by language companies and medical facilities. To become a certified medical interpreter (CMI) you must pass specific national certification exams.

There are currently three ways to become a CMI:

1. National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) The NBCMI exam has both a written and an oral component and offers certification in six languages: Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Russian, Korean, and Vietnamese. NBCMI currently offers online proctoring which enables you to take both the written and the oral exam either at an on-site location or from home.

2. Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) The CCHI exam consists of a written and oral component and currently offers certification in Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin. To this date, both exams are offered on-site only.

3. Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) The RID exam is specific to sign-language certification and is available on-site only.

Do I Need a Bachelor's Degree to Work as a Medical Interpreter?

Having a bachelor’s degree in interpretation or in a foreign language is common among interpreters, but not necessary. Some interpreters have a bachelor’s degree in another field, and some interpreters don’t have a college degree at all.

That said, many medical facilities and agencies do prefer and some require that their interpreters have a bachelor’s degree as a basic credential.

In addition, having a bachelor’s degree or a higher level of education enables you to negotiate higher rates as an independent contractor and a higher salary if you work directly for an agency or medical facility.

Get Involved in Your Local Medical Interpreters Organization

If you're contemplating the possibility of becoming a medical interpreter, a great starting point is to become involved in your local medical interpreters organization.

You can learn a lot just by attending their meetings, listening, asking questions, and interacting with interpreters who are active in the field.

You may also learn which interpreting agencies are the most respected in your area and whether or not they offer accredited medical interpreter training.

If you have already completed a medical interpreter training or obtained certification, connecting with your local medical interpreters organization is a valuable way to network to find employment.

Owners of language agencies often come to these gatherings in part to recruit new medical interpreters, so showing up is a great way to get your foot in the door before you start applying to language agencies.

Make sure you have business cards ready to hand out to potential clients!

The International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA) is an excellent medical interpreters organization I strongly recommend joining. They have chapters all across the U.S. and overseas.

Additional Thoughts and Advice

Full-Time Employment

Although there is a growing demand for medical interpreters across the U.S., I strongly discourage anybody from quitting their day job until they have secured full-time employment as an interpreter in a medical facility (such as a hospital) or with a language agency.

Freelancers (Independent Contractors)

If you work as a freelancer, it will be much more difficult to find enough work to support yourself. I don't mean to discourage you; I am simply speaking based on my experiences and would not want you to be caught off guard.

Some challenges you'll face as an independent contractor:

  • It takes time to obtain solid clients as a result of applying to agencies, so you will need a lot of patience, as well as another source of income during this time.
  • There is no guarantee you will keep as busy as you'd like, so your income may be less than enough to cover your living expenses. Even working for several language agencies does not assure you ongoing work and a higher income. In fact, when I worked for multiple agencies, I was often contacted for assignments at overlapping times and therefore had no choice but to turn down one of the two offers.
  • You won't have a steady schedule; your income may be very inconsistent even on a month-to-month basis.
  • You will be responsible for paying for your own health and dental insurance.
  • Since state and federal taxes won't be withheld from your paychecks as they are when you have full-time employment, you'll have to set money aside for these, as well as for self-employment taxes.

For insights and advice on what it's like working as an on-site independent contractor, click here.

For a list of IMIA Chapters in the U.S., click here.

For a list of IMIA Chapters outside of the U.S., click here.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

  • What's the difference between the NBCMI exam and the CCHI exam?

    Both exams are ways to become nationally certified.

    When I was preparing to take the NBCMI exam several years ago, I remember hearing from seasoned interpreters that the NBCMI exam focused more heavily on medical terminology and medical concepts, whereas the CCHI exam focused more on the code of ethics for medical interpreters. I also remember getting a sense that the NBCMI exam was considered to be a more difficult exam than the CCHI exam. I never took the CCHI exam but I thought the NBCMI exam was indeed challenging and I did not pass the first time. You can find details about what each exam will look like in each of the organization's websites, under "Certification" or "Get Certified."

  • What schools offer courses for becoming a medical interpreter?

    A good starting point for finding schools that offer this course is by visiting this link on the IMIA website:

    I also recommend contacting language agencies near you to see if they offer any medical interpreter training courses. Just make sure they're accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and by the Commission for Medical Interpreter Education (CMIE). The advantage of taking a training at a language agency near you is that it may open doors for employment there.

  • Do the certificate of completion, and/or the national certification transfer across states?

    National certification does transfer across states and the certificate of completion should transfer across states also--as long as the training you took is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and by the Commission for Medical Interpreters Education (CMIE).

  • Can a bilingual doctor also be a medical interpreter?

    If a doctor is bilingual and speaks to his patients in their native language, there is no need for an interpreter. Some hospitals deliberately hire bilingual doctors to avoid utilizing interpreters as it is more time-efficient and cost-effective. However, it is important that the bilingual doctor know the medical terminology in the second language in his area of specialty to avoid errors in diagnosis, treatments, and medications.

  • For healthcare professionals who wish to improve their ability to communicate with patients that are less proficient in English, do you think that medical interpreter training is a viable option to increase their competency in the target language?

    Medical interpreter training will teach you the medical terminology you will need to help you effectively communicate with your patients. That said, you will need to demonstrate strong proficiency in the target language in order to be accepted into a medical interpreter training program. If you don't already have strong proficiency in the target language, I recommend increasing your proficiency (through language classes, etc.) before applying for a medical interpreter training program.

© 2016 Geri McClymont


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    • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

      Geri McClymont 

      4 years ago

      always exploring: yes, there is certainly a growing demand for medical interpreters in the U.S. This demand is mainly driven by increased globalization as well as a rise in the number of non-English speaking people in our country. This means more job opportunities for interpreters. Thank you for your comments and for stopping by.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      4 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Interesting article and well researched. I see how a medical interpreter would be needed more these days. Our world has morphed into one with many different languages. Thank you.


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