Why we need good medical interpreters — and lots of them

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network

For decades, medical interpreting has been done primarily by passionate and underpaid advocates of the immigrants and refugees not proficient enough in English to get them through a routine hospital or clinic visit.

Slowly, the field has been professionalizing. National certification – which has only been around since 2011 and only covers three languages (Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish) – is new enough that some health care professionals I spoke with who work with interpreters were not even aware of it. The field is still in something of a Wild West phase, with vast differences from one state or health care provider to another.

There are 25 million people in the United States who get through their days with very little English. That number has grown by 80 percent in just two decades, according to census data. In some states, such as Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina, the increase is close to 400 percent.

The presence of quality medical interpreters has been shown to reduce the length of hospital stays, unnecessary testing (and the requisite expense) and misdiagnosis. “It’s really about trying to ensure that all people, regardless of their ability to speak English, have access to quality health care,” said National Council on Interpreting in Health Care board co-chair Joy Connell.

Equal access to health care is protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Though it does not specifically mention language access, it does speak broadly of discrimination by “race, color, religion, or national origin.” Executive Order 13166, issued by President Bill Clinton in 2000, tied the rights of “persons with limited English proficiency” to the Civil Rights Act.

I’ve been talking to medical interpreters and the doctors and nurses who work with them. If you do the work, or if your work depends on medical interpreters, I’d like to hear from you. Click on the link below that best describes you:

Interpreters: our experience as a medical interpreter

Health care providers: Your experiences working with medical interpreters

I’d be grateful for your help as I report this story. If you’d like to reach out to me directly to share your experiences, please don’t hesitate. I can be reached at 651-290-1226 or jsguntzel@americanpublicmedia.org.