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

Updated on August 24, 2018
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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 the following:

  1. What medical interpreters do
  2. Modes of medical interpreting
  3. Medical interpreting services
  4. How to become a medical interpreter
  5. How to become a certified medical interpreter (CMI)
  6. The education you need to work as a medical interpreter
  7. 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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Cultural awareness refers to the ability to understand the beliefs, values, and ways of thinking of people from different cultures.

1. 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 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 and be attentive to non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language, in order to fully understand and accurately interpret all communication.

Some Areas in Which Medical Interpreters Work

vascular surgery
mental health
speech therapy
physical therapy
occupational therapy

2. 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 speakers pause. The interpreter may take notes while listening, and possibly ask the speakers for clarification to ensure 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.

3. Medical Interpreting Services

  • 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. To learn what it's like working as an on-site freelance medical interpreter, click here.
  • 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.

4. 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!

It's important to note that receiving a certificate for successfully completing a medical interpreter training program is not the same as becoming a certified medical interpreter (CMI). They are two different credentials.

5. 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 interpretersboth in-house and independent contractorsbe 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

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.

© 2016 Geri McClymont


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    • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

      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 Richert 

      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.


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