Health Care Interpreter - How to Become a Health Care Interpreter

Health Care Interpreter

Jump to:

Health Care Interpreter Job Description

Health care interpreters help patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) communicate successfully with medical professionals and providers. The services of a health care interpreter enables clinicians to provide excellent service to LEP patients, furnishing accurate translations of symptoms, medical history, and healthcare terminology. This profession is urgently needed as the number of people with limited ability to speak English continues to rise strongly in the U.S.

A health care interpreter today is a high-valued member of the medical team in countless healthcare venues across America. They provide verbal document translation into a patient's language, in person, over the telephone, or via video chat. They also furnish two-way translation between patients and doctors or other medical professionals, provide cultural data that can be important to tailoring a treatment plan, and assist in communicating with patients' spouses, relatives, and friends who are also LEP individuals.




Health care interpreters greatly improve communication with doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians, and other medical personnel. These trained interpreters offer much more accurate translation than friends or relatives of the patient, reducing the hospital's liability and protecting the patient from the dangers of a critical misunderstanding. 

The primary responsibilities of a health care interpreter include:

  • Bridging the gap between healthcare providers and patients

  • Providing translations of medical documents, including records and prescriptions

  • Correctly explaining procedures and medications to patients, including potential side effects

  • Maintaining fluency in multiple languages

  • Supporting the health and well-being of patients by accurately facilitating communication

  • Upholding laws, regulations, and policies in accordance with health care interpreting practices

  • Ensuring confidentiality of patient information

  • Understanding their ethical obligation to the position





Must effectively communicate with your co-workers to ensure the best care and the proper procedures. Must be able to communicate in high-stress environments.

Active Listening

Offering your full attention to an individual person or group in order to fully understand problems and their nature.

Critical Thinking

Must use logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems.

Judgment and Decision Making

Needs to be able to act autonomously and make difficult decisions that would benefit the patient or make corrections. Must consider all benefits and repercussions of potential actions and choose the appropriate one. 

Complex Problem Solving

Must be able to identify complex problems and develop and evaluate corrective options and implement solutions. 

Stress Management

Must be able to endure intense situations and handle pressure that comes with extreme situations you may encounter.


Must be trustworthy because you have people's lives in your hands and what you do could help or hurt them. They are entrusted with a great responsibility and must live up to it. 


Gauging how people react and read their body language to decipher their feelings and predict their actions. They must be able to determine if people could be a risk to themselves or others and to distinguish truths from lies.


Working Conditions


A health care interpreter's working conditions differ hugely depending on where they are employed. Depending on the size and organization of the hospital, the interpreter may work in just one section, or may provide interpretation services in multiple departments. The job formerly involved mostly day shift work, but with increasing numbers of LEP patients, night shifts and on-call work on weekends or holidays is often necessary, especially in acute and urgent care.

In large cities or hospitals, workloads can be quite intense. Additional pressure comes from working in the emergency room, in substance abuse clinics, domestic violence centers, mental health institutions, forensic medicine, or other situations of a like nature. While some locations give interpreters a break every two hours, many cannot or do not offer these respites and working continuously for much longer is possible.

Counterbalancing these stressful factors is the deep emotional satisfaction and the positive feelings many interpreters experience when they see how much their services save lives and improve treatment outcomes.

While urban settings have the highest demand for health care interpreters' services, more and more rural areas also need them. In addition to face to face translation, these professionals work over the telephone or through video.



How to Become a Health Care Interpreter:


A health care interpreter needs to have both deep fluency in at least two different languages and a detailed working knowledge of medical terminology in both those languages. Without thorough understanding of each language's words for the same healthcare procedures, problems, and concepts, useful translation is impossible.


1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree (4 Years)


In the United States, the two most common languages are English and Spanish. Most health care interpreters who intend on practicing in the U.S. seek to become fluent in Spanish early on and continue throughout their education. However, individuals may choose any language they desire, including sign language, as the focus of their education.

However, language alone is not enough to become an interpreter. An acute understanding of the cultural aspects related to the chosen second language is also key to success.

It's advisable for students seeking to become a health care interpreter to choose the corresponding foreign language as their area of study during their university experience, and to attain as much experience using that language as possible.


The preparation timeline below provides an example Spanish curriculum:


Grade Level Example Courses

Freshman Year


  • College Algebra
  • Intermediate Spanish I
  • Intermediate Spanish II
  • Biology I & Lab
  • English I
  • English II
  • Health & Fitness
  • General Education Requirements
  • Electives

Sophomore Year

  • Communications I
  • Advanced Spanish Language I
  • Advanced Spanish Language II
  • Medical Terminology
  • Psychology I
  • Statistics
  • General Education Requirements
  • Electives

Junior Year


  • Spanish for Health Professions
  • Spanish Conversation I
  • Spanish for Business
  • Spanish Civilizations
  • General Education Requirements
  • Electives

Senior Year

  • Spanish Conversation II
  • Survey of Spanish Literature
  • Spanish Classics
  • Spanish-American Civilization
  • Contemporary Spanish-American Narrative
  • Advanced Composition
  • Remaining Requirements
  • Remaining Electives


2. Earn a CCHI Certification


Those wanting to enter the field of health care interpreting should consider becoming certified. For these professionals, there are two primary entities that offer such credentials: the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI).

The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) offers the highest credential available (CHI or CoreCHI) to healthcare interpreters, providing professional recognition of their qualification. 

The CoreCHI exam is composed of 100 multiple-choice questions revolving around:

  • Managing interpreting encounters
  • Healthcare terminology
  • Interacting with healthcare professionals
  • Preparing for interpreting encounters
  • Cultural responsiveness

While the CHI exam is performance and oral-based in the following modes:

  • Consecutive translation
  • Simultaneous translation
  • Written translation
  • Sight translation

To be eligible, candidates must:

  • Be 18 or older
  • Have a U.S. high school diploma or GED
  • Have a minimum of 40 hours of healthcare interpreting training
  • Be proficient in English and their chosen language

Learn more about the CCHI certification


The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) offers another credential for interpreters looking to become more competitive when going into the field. 

The NBCMI certification exam covers the following areas:

  • Medical Terminology in Working Languages (38%)
  • Medical Specialties in Working Languages (23%)
  • Medical Interpreter Ethics (15%)
  • Roles of the Medical Interpreter (8%)
  • Cultural Competence (3%)
  • Interpreter Standards of Practice (5%)
  • Legislation and Regulations (3%)

To be eligible for the NBCMI certification, candidates must:

  • Be 18 or older
  • Have a U.S. high school diploma or GED
  • Have a minimum of 40 hours of healthcare interpreting training
  • Be proficient in English and their chosen language

Learn more about the NBCMI certification


3. Consider a Master's Degree Program


While it is not necessary for entry into the field, earning a master's degree in the individual's chosen language can dramatically increase competitiveness, job security, wages, and opportunities, make it an attractive option to many aspiring interpreters.

Foreign language graduate programs are common at most universities and require passage of the Graduate Requisite Exam (GRE) for admission. Students seeking graduate degree are advised to begin studies for the GRE during the last two years of their undergraduate education.



Salary Outlook