How to become a certified medical interpreter in the USA

How to Become a Certified Medical Interpreter


The Necessary Qualifications and Your Options for Becoming a Certified Medical Interpreter in the United States

The United States Government (through the US Department of Health and Human Services) has defined the standards for culturally and linguistically appropriate healthcare in order to “advance health equity, improve quality, and help eliminate health care disparities by providing a blueprint for individuals and health and health care organizations to implement culturally and linguistically appropriate services”.

These standards are commonly known as the National CLAS Standards, and they don’t actually address certification for healthcare interpreters. The focus on the National CLAS Standards is much more than interpreting – it’s establishing processes and a roadmap that ensure equitable and accessible healthcare to limited-English patients. When the CLAS standards refer to interpreters and interpreting in healthcare as one of the methods for delivering culturally and linguistically appropriate services, its focus is defining individuals who are “Qualified” to interpret.

Standard 7 of the National CLAS Standards is the standard that defines the competence of individuals providing language assistance. Here is the legal requirement for individuals to be interpreters in healthcare:

Before one can be considered qualified to interpret, translate, or provide other communication assistance, he/she must be assessed to determine his/her competence. Language ability alone does not qualify an individual to provide language assistance. Leading organizations in the field of language assistance, as reported by the National Health Law Program (2010), have identified the requisite skills and qualifications of interpreters as follows:

  • Active listening skills
  • Message conversion skills
  • Clear and understandable speech delivery
  • Familiarity with regionalisms and slang in both languages
  • Ability to identify differences in meaning due to dialects or regionalisms to ensure effective and accurate message conversion
  • Ability to communicate in all registers and at varying levels of formality
  • Understanding of colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions in all working languages
  • Working knowledge of anatomy and physiology
  • Extensive knowledge of the vocabulary and terminology related to diagnosis, prevention, treatment, and management of illness and disease
  • Understanding of key concepts in health care, such as confidentiality, informed consent, and patients’ rights
  • Command of the vocabulary related to the provision of health care in both languages

Certification for medical interpreters was established in response to the legal requirement for anyone providing language assistance to be assessed as competent. Certification for interpreters in healthcare currently only exists on two levels: national and state.

There are currently two national organizations that certify medical interpreters:

  1. Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) offers the CHI Exam
  2. National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) offers the CMI Exam

Both organizations have similar requirements for anyone who wants to sit for a certification exam.

  • You must be at least 18 years of age
  • You must hold a High School diploma or a GED
  • You must have successfully completed an accepted 40hr training for interpreters in healthcare
  • You must have demonstrated linguistic proficiency in both English and the target language that you would like to be certified to interpret in.

Very few states offer a state level certification for medical interpreters.

State certification for medical interpreters has not gained much momentum. Before the national certification existed it seemed imperative to have a state certification, but now that there is a national certification for interpreting in healthcare, most individuals who want to become certified medical interpreters will be best served seeking national certification. If you’re interested in state certification, you can do a quick google search on your state of residence to see what exists. A search like “become a certified medical interpreter in ___” should return some results if your state has a certification. At the time of this post, I’m only aware of the northwest states offering certifications: OR & WA. There may be more, do a quick search if you’re curious about your state.

***CAUTION*** Please don’t confuse a certificate of interpreter training with being a certified medical interpreter.

Many universities and some private language training centers will offer certificates of completion for successfully passing a healthcare interpreter training course or series of classes. This is not the same as being a certified medical interpreter, this is a certificate of completion or a certificate of training. This is definitely a great resume builder, but shouldn’t be confused with certification as a medical interpreter.

Since the National CLAS Standards don’t actually require national certification, many clinics, hospitals, and health systems have defined their own requirements for staff who are qualified to interpret at their facility.

This doesn’t mean that they are sidestepping the accepted national certification for medical interpreters, they have implemented their own interpretation of the Department of Health and Human Services Blueprint for Advancing and Sustaining CLAS and have created an in-house process for approving healthcare interpreters. If you’re an individual looking to become a certified medical interpreter, you should recognize that being approved by your employer to interpret is good, but probably only valid at your current employer. However, if you are certified nationally – that’s a transferrable certification.

Whether you’ve decided to become nationally certified to interpret, certified by your state of residence, or simply meet the requirements of your employer to be a qualified interpreter, you’re going to want to join a local association of professional interpreters. Most states will have some sort of professional interpreting organization. Here in my state of Colorado it’s CAPI. Your local professional association will sponsor professional development, give you opportunities to network with other professional interpreters in your area, and probably allow you to list your services in their directory of interpreters.

Medical interpreters are a vital component of providing equitable, accessible, and relevant healthcare for limited English patients here in the United States. Good luck as you pursue national certification!

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