Medical Interpreting

December 17, 2020
Medical Interpreting

Medical interpreting can break down language barriers between healthcare providers and their patients, in order to improve medical outcomes for those patients. It is a highly skilled undertaking that requires a range of skills in addition to knowledge or medical terminology in two languages. 

As such, I wanted to explore medical interpretation in detail, looking at what it involves, why the stakes are so high, best practices and more. Read on to discover all you need to know about medical interpretations. 

Medical Interpreting – Defined

The medical interpreter definition refers to an individual who is fluent in two languages, including in specialist medical terminology. The medical interpreter facilitates conversations between doctors and patients in a range of settings, from one-on-one consultations to medical trials. 

This headline medical interpreter definition covers a huge variety of skills and expertise. I’ve explored these in depth below, looking at why a medical interpreter’s role is so vital. 

Medical Interpretations Should Be 100% Accurate

While I always stress the importance of accurate interpretation, nowhere is this more important than with medical interpretations. There is simply no scope for error here – a misinterpretation around an allergy, for example, could cost the patient their life. Medical interpretations that aren’t quite accurate could also lead to wrong treatment decisions, prolonged pain for the patient and all manner of other undesirable outcomes. 

So, is medical interpretation always accurate? Sadly, no. But this must always be the goal. Communication errors can arise for a number of reasons, even when the interpreter is a suitably qualified and experienced professional. Let me walk you through some examples: 

Omitting Details

This can happen when the doctor or patient speaks for too long before allowing a pause for the interpreter to relay the information in the other language. While medical interpreters can take notes to help them relay information correctly, the long the speech, the easier it becomes to omit a key detail. Omissions are made even more likely when the medical interpreting takes place over the telephone and the interpreter can’t see the patient or doctor’s body language. 

Adding Details

At the other end of the spectrum, misinterpretations can also creep in when the interpreter tries to be helpful and facilitate smoother communication by adding in details. While there is sometimes a need to do this, the interpreter needs to make it clear what they are adding and that they are editorialising the patient’s (or doctor’s) words. 


This is another danger of medical interpretation. Medical terminology can be incredibly complex, even when the healthcare professional is trying to explain it in simple terms. Consider, for example, how a medical interpreter who is not familiar with the terms could muddle up anuresis and enuresis. The first refers to being unable to urinate; the second to bedwetting. Clearly, a misinterpretation could create confusion, if nothing more serious. 

Medical terminology is full of examples of similar-sounding terms that have different meanings. Substituting one for another is therefore surprisingly easy to do. In some cases, this even extends to the medical interpreter substituting a genuine term with one that sounds similar but is, in fact, made up. The consequences of this can be serious, particularly in situations where emergency, life-saving care is being given. 


Requirements and Qualifications for Medical Interpretation

As a highly skilled area of work, medical interpretation should only be undertaken by qualified linguists. This doesn’t simply mean someone who can speak two languages. A medical interpreter needs to do so, obviously, but they also need to exhibit a whole range of other skills and attributes. These include:

HIPAA Compliance

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) defines how patients’ sensitive personal data must be protected. Every medical interpreter needs to be aware of HIPAA requirements and ensure that they comply with them. 


The medical interpreter may have to deliver bad news, relay sensitive information or convey details of an intimate or embarrassing problem. As such, they need to be able to empathise with the patient and deliver the information with careful attention to tone and mood. 

Cultural Awareness

Certain discussions or questions may not translate well from one culture to another. Successful medical interpreters need to be aware of this and be sensitive in their delivery of information back and forth. 

Professional Boundaries and Ethics

There is a fine line between conveying information in a professional manner and wanting to provide comfort and support to the patient as part of the process. That’s why a medical interpreter who has undertaken training in this area is always a valuable asset. 

Specialist Knowledge

Every medical interpreter needs to understand medical terminology, but many take this further and specialise in particular areas of healthcare. This can help to drive up the accuracy of the medical interpreting that they provide. 

Best Practices on Medical Interpreting

The patient, doctor and medical interpreter can all take steps to ensure that medical interpreting flows smoothly. I’ll walk you through the headline items here:

Tips for Patients

• Explain clearly and specifically 

• Pause often

• Speak up if you don’t understand something

• Look at the doctor rather than the interpreter

When a medical interpreter is relaying information to a doctor on your behalf, be sure to explain yourself very clearly and specifically. If the interpretation is taking place over the telephone, this precision is even more important, as the medical interpreter won’t be able to see your gestures or body language. If you’re meeting in person, look at the doctor when conversing so that you can read their body language too. 

Pause every couple of sentences to give the interpreter time to relay what you’ve said to the doctor. And if you don’t understand something they’ve said, speak up and ask for more clarity. This clarity could impact the decisions you’re making about your treatment/care. 

Tips for Medical Interpreters

• Don’t editorialise 

• Ask for clarity if you’re unfamiliar with a word

• Take care with your tone

Medical interpreters can help to ensure the accuracy of their work by not adding, omitting or otherwise editorialising when they interpret. It’s also essential to ask for clarity if you come across an unfamiliar word – this is NOT the time to wing it. 

It’s also important to pay attention to your tone and suit it to the mood of the conversation. Medical discussions can be heavily emotionally charged and the patient’s feelings need to be taken into account throughout the interaction. 

Do you feel you have the skills to do this? If you want to know how to become a medical interpreter, read more via the link below. 

Read more: How to Become a Certified Medical Interpreter

Tips for Healthcare Providers

• Brief the interpreter beforehand 

• Speak slowly and clearly

• Pause often

• Consider cultural barriers

• Ask the patient to repeat things back

If you’re using a medical interpretation service, brief the interpreter beforehand if at all possible. Let your medical interpreter know the gist of the matter to be discussed and forewarn them of any distressing news that you are going to share. 

During the medical interpreting itself, speak slowly and clearly – don’t change direction mid-sentence. Pause regularly to allow the interpreter to relay your words to the patient. 

It’s also important to consider cultural barriers during the conversation, as well as linguistic ones. This might mean phrasing questions a little differently or presenting information in a slightly different way. 

Finally, ask the patient to repeat back their understanding of the information you have delivered. This ensures that there are no miscommunications taking place. 

Following these tips can help to enhance the quality of the interaction with the patient and ensure that the conversation flows smoothly and accurately. 

Types of Medical Interpreting

Medical interpreting can take place in different settings and for different reasons. I’ve used the idea of a doctor/patient consultation above but that’s just one example. Medical interpretations can actually apply to any kind of interaction between patients and healthcare provides who speak different languages. A medical interpreter could assist with clinical trials, an emergency operation, even a birth. And anything and everything in between.

Before I wrap up, I just want to take a minute to look at the different types of medical interpreting that take place. 

Consecutive Interpretation

I’ve talked about the patient and doctor pausing to allow the interpreter to speak. This is known as consecutive interpretation, as the parties speak consecutively. The medical interpreter will likely use shorthand or their own style of abbreviated note-taking as part of the process of converting each speaker’s words from one language to the other. 

Consecutive interpretation is almost always used during one-to-one conversations as it allows the conversation to evolve naturally and flow freely. 

Simultaneous Interpretation

The other commonly used kind of medical interpretation is simultaneous interpretation, which is where the interpreter delivers the speaker’s words in real time. This is ideal for medical conferences and clinical trials where briefings are given to larger groups of participants at once. It is best suited to situations like these, where one party is giving information while others listen, rather than two-way conversations. 

Over the Phone Interpretation

I’ve focused on in-person conversations in this article, but plenty of medical interpretation also takes place over the phone. This is ideal for conversations where the patient is too unwell to travel, where just a quick update is required or where travel is ruled out for other reasons (I’m looking at you, COVID). 

Medical interpretation that takes place over the telephone is more challenging than in-person interpreting. This is because the interpreter misses out on the body language from both parties. Those non-verbal cues are such a key part of the way that we converse that removing them can make the process of relaying information much harder. 

Over the phone interpretation is also tougher when it comes to empathising with the patient and tuning in to their mood. Again, this can make the overall process harder. 

Video Remote Interpretation

Given the added complexities of over the phone medical interpretations, a video call is almost always preferable. If you’re a healthcare provider looking to connect meaningfully with patients from a distance, video remote interpretation is the way forward. It can still be harder to gauge things like mood, but it’s light years ahead of phone-based medical interpreting. 

The continual advance of technology and increase in connectivity means that more and more people are now able to access video conferencing platforms. This is no longer an unusual way for companies to connect with people and the same is true of the medical profession. Video calling can often deliver far more efficient appointments then requiring all patients to attend your premises in person. 

If you’re wondering how to integrate Zoom to your telehealth services, read more via the link below. The platform is intuitive, easy to use and free for your patients, making it a popular choice for those providing medical services remotely. 

Read more: Zoom for Telehealth

Wrap Up

I’ve looked at medical interpreting from different angles above, to explore the topic in plenty of detail. I’ve covered: 

• The medical interpreter definition

• Why accuracy is so important in medical interpretation services

• The requirements and qualifications that individuals need in order to become (and remain) successful medical interpreters

• Best practices for medical interpretations, from the patient, doctor and interpreter’s perspectives. 

• The different types of medical interpretation that can take place and what the merits and drawbacks of each of these are. 

Medical interpreting is an extremely valuable service in enabling patients to access the medical care that they need. It also allows both doctors and patients to make decisions based on a clear mutual understanding of the patient’s situation. This can drive up outcomes for patients dealing with a vast range of medical issues. It can also help doctors to treat the unwell to the best of their ability, thus making good on their commitment to the Hippocratic Oath. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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