How to Become a Medical Interpreter: Credentials, Training, and Certification

Updated on December 31, 2017
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Geri McClymont has been working as a 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 considering becoming a medical interpreter in your language pair in the U.S., I have good news: The medical interpreter career field 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 introduce you to the medical interpreter profession by answering basic questions about credentials, training, and certification.

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

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 the parties.

Interpreters in the medical field must have cultural awareness and advocate for patients when necessary. They are expected to adhere to a national code of ethics for interpreters in health care, as well as abide by all federal legislation and policies in regard to patient care.

Medical interpreters work across a wide range of specialties as well as medical facilities including hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and mental health clinics.

Modes of Medical Interpreting

On-site interpreting: 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 aide 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 which are missed with OPI.

To become a medical interpreter, you must have native or near-native proficiency in a second language.
To become a medical interpreter, you must have native or near-native proficiency in a second language. | Source

How Do I Become a Medical Interpreter?

Requirement #1: You Must Be Highly Proficient in Your Language Pair

To become a medical interpreter, the first requirement you need is to have 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.

The criteria for determining language proficiency will vary among medical interpreter training programs but generally consists of passing a language proficiency exam to demonstrate proficiency in the target language.

Requirement #2: You Must Complete an Accredited Medical Interpreter Training Program

Once you pass the language screening process, you must complete a 40-hour minimum accredited medical interpreter training program.

Some interpreting agencies offer accredited medical interpreter training programs, so contact your local agencies or visit their websites to find out if they do. Taking the training through a local agency can be very advantageous as it may open the door for employment opportunities with that agency later.

Most training programs take several months to complete, and once you successfully pass the final exam, you're awarded a certificate of completion.

Be aware that some training programs may be more widely accepted by some agencies and medical facilities than others.

For example, in Colorado, many agencies and medical facilities prefer to hire interpreters with the Bridging the Gap training. Find a training program that's well respected in your area and make sure it's accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCAA).

Please note that the certificate you receive for successfully completing a medical interpreter training program is not the same as being certified as a medical interpreter (which is addressed in the next section: Requirement #3). They are two different credentials.

Distinguish yourself from other medical interpreters by getting yourself certified.
Distinguish yourself from other medical interpreters by getting yourself certified. | Source

Requirement #3: You Must Be a Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI)

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

Although many agencies and medical facilities do hire interpreters without national certification, an increasing number of them are raising the bar and requiring that their interpreters be certified.

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

There are currently three avenues through which you can become a CMI:

(1) National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) This 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) This 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) This exam is specific to sign-language certification and is available on-site only.

Do I Need a Bachelors 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 being 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 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.

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. 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!

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

© 2016 Geri McClymont


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    • gerimcclym profile image

      Geri McClymont 2 years ago

      MsDora: there is so much more I want to write about this topic; I am currently working on a few additional articles. Thank you for your comment.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 2 years ago from The Caribbean

      Very helpful article for readers interested in medical interpreting as a career. Seems that you answered all the questions.

    • gerimcclym profile image

      Geri McClymont 2 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 Fuller 2 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.