12 Essentials for Medical Interpreter Assignments: What to Take With You

Updated on June 8, 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.

Once you become a medical interpreter and start applying to language agencies for work as an independent contractor, you’ll likely want to know what exactly you should take with you on assignments. After all, you want to be fully prepared so you can focus all your energy into your role as an interpreter without worrying whether you forgot to bring something along. Of course, you also want to present yourself as a professional who has his act together.

Make sure you have everything you need before you head off to your assignments!
Make sure you have everything you need before you head off to your assignments! | Source

12 Things You Need for Assignments

  1. Professional bag
  2. Three-ring binder
  3. Bilingual dictionary
  4. Something to read
  5. Spiral notebook
  6. Pens
  7. Smart phone and charger
  8. Badge
  9. Professional attire
  10. Umbrella
  11. Toiletries bag
  12. Any other personal items

1. Professional Bag

You will need a professional bag in which to carry all your essential items.

Ideal bag:

  • neutral color (black, grey, brown, tan)
  • has compartments (laptop bags are ideal)
  • is just the right size to hold your essentials (not too large or bulky)
  • is new or gently used
  • has a clean, classy look

The bag you choose to carry reflects your professionalism. Choose one that has the above-listed characteristics and that is subtle in appearance.

Remember that your primary job as an interpreter is to faithfully convey the oral message between patients and medical providers and never to draw attention to yourself.

I recommend having a second bag as a back-up just in case something happens to your first one. Your back-up bag can be identical to your first bag, maybe in a different color.

I also strongly recommend having your bag fully prepared before you go to bed each evening. Working as a freelance medical interpreter means you may get calls very early in the morning, so always be ready!

2. Three-Ring Binder

Use a binder that is:

  • thin (so it doesn’t take up too much space)
  • lightweight
  • durable
  • with pockets

Whether you work for one or multiple agencies, the main purpose of the binder is to keep your paperwork organized. Consider using dividers if you work for several agencies.

Here’s what I keep in my binder:

  • hard copies of employment verification forms (EVFs)—these contain all the info you need for your assignments (location, department, patient name and MRN)
  • evaluation forms (some agencies will request that you give these to the medical providers you interpret for, and they will complete them and fax them directly to the language agency)

  • a log to document assignment information (see sample below)

Note: Remember that EVFs are confidential documents, so you should never keep copies of these for your records.

Sample Log of Assignments

Arrival time
Appt. scheduled start time
Appt. scheduled end time
Wait time
Appt. over
Follow-up scheduled
Follow-up scheduled

Whether you charge for the time between your arrival time and your patient's appointment start time will depend on the rates and terms you agreed on when you signed the contract with each agency.

3. Bilingual Dictionary (Paperback)

Most interpreters will use an online bilingual dictionary if they can. Of course, this is ideal. But keep in mind that you won’t always get a signal in the room or facility you interpret in, so it's a good idea to always have a paperback copy of a bilingual dictionary with you.

I take the Spanish-English/English-Spanish Medical Dictionary, Fourth Edition by Glenn T. Rogers, MD to all my assignments because it is so thorough and I like its smaller size. In addition, I sometimes also take with me the Spanish-English/English-Spanish Medical Dictionary, Fourth Edition by Onyria Herrera McElroy, PhD and Lola L. Grabb, M.A. because it has great images with labels which helps patients understand medical concepts.

Long periods of wait time during assignments are an ideal time to brush up on medical terminology!
Long periods of wait time during assignments are an ideal time to brush up on medical terminology! | Source

4. Something to Read

Expect a lot of wait time during assignments, so always keep something interesting with you to read during those long stretches.

While in the waiting room of medical facilities, texting or talking on your smartphone for long periods of time looks very unprofessional, as does reading magazines such as Allure or GQ you may find in the waiting room.

I recommend sticking to neutral reading topics and avoiding controversial ones. You never know who will notice what you’re reading in the waiting room, and it could impact your image.

Use this time to brush up on your interpreting skills by reading medical articles or journals in both of your languages!

Tip: Compile a light binder of information for each medical specialty and take the binder with you on assignments specific to that specialty. For example, create a binder for neurology composed of medical terminology and information relevant to neurology. Include online articles you’ve downloaded from reputable medical sites, or material you obtained from your medical interpreter training. Take the binder with you to all of your neurology assignments.

5. Spiral Notebook

There are many interpreters out there who don’t take notes during assignments (I’m not sure why). I absolutely recommend that you always take notes of key information during assignments. Not only will it help you ensure accuracy as you interpret, but it will give you something solid to refer to if there's ever a question of having interpreted something accurately.

Taking notes is especially important when doctors prescribe multiple medications to a patient. I normally repeat these back to the doctor after I've jotted them down, to ensure I recorded the correct name and dosage of each medication. Most medical providers will appreciate your thoroughness.

I suggest writing the date and time for each assignment at the very top of the page, along with the first name of the patient. For confidentiality purposes, never include the patient’s last name or MRN.

In addition, there are many times when the patient will want to write something down for future reference, such as information the doctor is giving her, and the patient will ask for paper. Or sometimes the medical provider will want to write something down for the patient and won’t have paper available.

6. Pens

Keep several in your bag. Stick to black or blue ink.

7. Smartphone and Charger

Always have both with you. You’ll need your phone to call and receive calls from language agencies throughout the day. Some assignments may last much longer than expected so always bring your charger, too!

8. Badge

Language companies and medical facilities require you to wear a photo badge with the name of the language agency you represent for each assignment. You should receive a separate badge from each agency you work for. Wearing it around your neck (as opposed to clipping it on) is the easiest method and you're less likely to lose it this way.

Tip: Be sure to wear the correct badge for each assignment. It's easy to get them mixed up when you're working for multiple agencies within the same day. You may want to keep all your badges in your bag all the time, just in case.

Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, as you're likely to be on your feet for long periods of time.
Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, as you're likely to be on your feet for long periods of time. | Source

9. Professional Attire

The way you dress as an interpreter can make or break your chances of getting called back for future assignments, and can potentially cost you a contract renewal with a language agency.

Dress in a modest and subtle manner. Remember that you never want to draw attention to yourself. Keep this in mind every time you put an outfit together for an assignment.

Allow the following chart to guide you:

Wear This, Not That!

Wear This
Don't Wear This
Ladies and Gentlemen
subtle colors: navy blue, light blue, grey, black, brown, tan, white, cream; solid colors
bright colors, plaid, bold stripes, polka-dots, leopard print or other attention-grabbing print
pencil skirts, full length pants, pantyhose, modest necklines, subtle jewelry, pumps or boots, cardigans, blazer jackets
short skirts, jeans, shorts, bare legs, low-cut necklines, large or very colorful jewelry, open toe shoes, sandals, flip flops
full length pants, belt, button-down collar shirts, tie (optional), shoes, cardigans, blazer jackets
jeans, shorts, t-shirts, sandals, flip flops

Sample outfit for a lady: navy blue pencil skirt, white blouse, black pumps, pantyhose, matching cardigan or blazer jacket in colder weather

Sample outfit for a gentleman: grey pants, black belt, white button-down shirt, tie (optional), black shoes, black socks, matching cardigan or blazer jacket in colder weather


  • Be sure to wear comfortable shoes, as you're likely to be on your feet for long periods of time.
  • Stay clear of strong perfume or cologne. If you must use a fragrance, stick to something very subtle.

10. Umbrella

  • compact (the smaller the better)
  • neutral color

11. Toiletries Bag

  • makeup (keep it simple and light)
  • compact comb or brush
  • compact toothbrush and toothpaste
  • compact mirror
  • nail file
  • any other toiletries you need

12. Anything Else?

  • mints
  • snacks (granola bars are ideal)
  • water (small bottle that can fit easily in your bag)
  • wallet (driver’s license, auto insurance, money)
  • eyeglasses and wipes
  • mini lint remover
  • tissues

Remember that the more prepared you are for your assignments, the more confident you'll feel and the better you'll be able to focus on your work. For tips on how to reduce stress as an on-site medical interpreter, 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.

© 2018 Geri McClymont


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