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What Is It Like to Work as a Freelance Medical Interpreter?

Updated on March 19, 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.

 Language agencies often can’t foretell how far in advance they’ll need interpreters in any given language pair.
Language agencies often can’t foretell how far in advance they’ll need interpreters in any given language pair. | Source

You’ve completed your medical interpreter training program and are ready to start working as an independent contractor. You’ve likely been told you should contact language agencies as a start, yet you want to know what you’re getting yourself into before you start applying.

This article gives you an inside look at what it’s like working for language companies as a freelance medical interpreter, based on my own experiences.

Assignments

Once you’ve signed your first contract with an agency, be prepared to start receiving assignments by phone as well as electronically right away! Unless you’ve specified that you don’t accept same-day requests, expect to be contacted anywhere from several weeks in advance to the hour of the assignment.

While it’s a good idea to ask each agency before you sign the contract how much prior notification they will normally provide you for assignments, language companies often can’t foretell how far in advance they’ll need interpreters in any given language pair – this is driven by their end clients’ request for interpreters, which is often completely unpredictable.

Be sure to decide in advance what your rates will be for work you accept with less than 24 hours’ notice.

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Employment Verification Forms

Each time you accept an interpreting assignment from an agency, the agency either sends you an employment verification form (EVF), complete with assignment details, or they ask you to complete a blank EVF with the details they send you separately. EVFs generally include the following information:

  • Interpreter’s name
  • Language (other than English)
  • Date of assignment
  • Contracted assignment beginning and end times
  • Name and address of medical facility
  • Department within the medical facility
  • Patient medical record number (MRN)
  • Patient name

Note: It’s important to record on EVFs the actual start and end times for assignments, which may differ from your contracted start and end times, such as when patients arrive early or appointments last longer than anticipated.

Each EVF is signed by both the interpreter and the medical provider at the conclusion of each assignment and must be received by the agency within 24 hours.

HIPAA Regulations

Confidentiality

Because EVFs normally contain highly sensitive information, such as patient names and medical record numbers, it's imperative to keep them in a safe location at all times, as well as to shred hard copies and delete electronic versions immediately after submitting them to their designated agencies.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a federal law that mandates the protection of the privacy and security of patients’ health information and enforces severe consequences for violations of this act, including termination of employment, jail time, and fines of up to $50,000 per violation.

Make sure to keep separate documentation of your assignments, including beginning and end times, for your own records.

Evaluation Forms

Some agencies will ask you to take an interpreter evaluation form with you to each assignment. These are for the medical provider to complete regarding your performance after each assignment and to fax directly to the agency.

Items on evaluation forms may include the following:

  • Did the interpreter arrive on time for the assignment?
  • Was the interpreter dressed appropriately?
  • Did the interpreter introduce him or herself?
  • Did the interpreter communicate effortlessly?
  • Did the interpreter communicate effectively?
  • Did the interpreter conduct him or herself in a professional manner?

Create an Efficient Filing System

It's critical to have an excellent filing system to organize your paperwork for the various agencies you’ll work for. This will help you locate forms quickly as you prepare for your daily assignments and send out invoices at the end of the month, in addition to making your life easier during tax time.

Your files for each agency might be labeled something like this:

FILES FOR EACH AGENCY:

  • Policies and Procedures
  • Contract
  • Blank EVFs
  • Blank Evaluation Forms
  • Invoices
  • Activity Reports

Payment

Some language companies will request that you send them an invoice at the end of each month, while others will send you a monthly activity report/invoice based on the time recorded on your EVFs.

Agencies typically pay you electronically by depositing your payments directly into your bank account on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.

Keep close tabs on your deposits to ensure they're accurate!

Working for Multiple Agencies

Each agency is unique. Once you begin working for more than one, you'll inevitably notice similarities and differences in their policies and procedures.

For example, one company may require that you contact them immediately if your patient doesn't show up within fifteen minutes after your contracted start time, while another company may request that you only contact them if the appointment duration exceeds your contracted time by more than an hour.

These policies are normally based on the agencies’ agreements with their direct clients, meaning the medical facilities you interpret at, and it’s essential that you stay on top of these nuances. If needed, create a table with each agency’s requirements and carry it with you as a guide.

You may also want to use a log sheet to document your communications with language companies during assignments to help you monitor your compliance with their guidelines.

These are some additional instances in which agencies may request that you call them during assignments:

  • If a patient shows up before your contracted start time
  • If the appointment was cancelled
  • If the appointment ends 20 or more minutes before your contracted end time

Document Wait Time

As a medical interpreter, expect long periods of wait time during assignments.

To protect yourself as well as the agencies you represent, it's important to document all wait time, including:

  • When a patient arrives late
  • When the medical provider arrives late
  • Any time period after which a patient has been admitted for his appointment and is waiting to see a medical provider

The Tradeoff

Make no mistake – there's a price for the freedom you have as a freelancer. In exchange for this freedom comes its unpredictable nature which can be stressful for many contractors.

What are some of the challenges of being an independent contractor?

  • You're not guaranteed a certain number of hours per week or per month, so your income may fluctuate drastically from one month to the next. This can be especially difficult if you rely primarily on your freelance work for financial support. Even working for multiple agencies does not guarantee you steady work and income.
  • You'll be traveling to multiple locations and will need to familiarize yourself with the driving route and distance to each one, as well as with the parking facilities at each building to avoid being late to assignments.
  • You'll frequently receive short notice for assignments.
  • Your schedule will likely change daily.

Some Final Thoughts

  • Keep a mileage log to help track your traveling expenses.
  • Keep your vehicle in good condition.
  • Always give your best!

© 2016 Geri McClymont

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