For patients who speak more common languages such as Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin or Vietnamese, finding medical interpreters to facilitate communication with providers is typically achievable.
Looking for professionals to translate in lesser-known languages like Tigrinya, Pashto, Krahn or Ojibwe becomes tricky.
The importance of medical interpreters has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, when isolation policies meant patients couldn’t bring family members to help translate during doctor’s visits.
Approximately 8.3% of the U.S. population, more than 27.5 million people, have limited English-language proficiency, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Roughly 15% of adults—more than 37.5 million people—have some difficulty hearing, the National Center for Health Statistics found.
While the practice of healthcare interpretation has grown over the past couple decades with advances in technology and certification programs, the field still faces significant challenges related to the availability of language services and the reimbursement of those services by insurers.
Almost 19,800 medical interpreters are employed in the U.S., according to Zippia, an online recruitment service platform, which looks at job openings and data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of medical interpreter jobs is projected to increase by 20% between 2021 and 2031, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The most difficult part of recruiting and training medical interpreters is identifying skilled individuals in a wide range of languages who have the necessary experience or certification to teach, said Lisa Morris, director of Cross Cultural Initiatives at Commonwealth Medicine, a division of the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.
Commonwealth Medicine works closely with community-based organizations and other interpretive agencies to understand the language needs of patients, she said.
“I see an increase in the demand and not enough supply,” Morris said. “I get calls from institutions all the time asking, ‘Do you have any graduates in this language or that language? Are you training people in this language? We really need it.’”
The profession is interconnected with issues of social justice and immigration and is crucial to helping patients understand their prognosis, treatment and care instructions, said Natalya Mytareva, executive director of the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters.
“Interpreting is done in many settings, but in healthcare, it's the most important part of expressing your symptoms if you are sick and providing care if you are the provider, because any provider is only as good as they are interpreted,” Mytareva said.
Developments in technology have facilitated greater flexibility and capabilities for interpreters in the medical field, said Jacobia Solomon, president of language services at AMN Healthcare, a staffing company. Medical interpretations of American Sign Language in particular have been delivered remotely via video since the late 1990s and early 2000s, allowing patients to have greater access to services.
Initially, AMN offered virtual interpreter services using standalone devices like iPads or TVs. Now, the organization has an app that patients can use to access an interpreter in their chosen language to translate during any healthcare interaction, whether it is a telehealth session, hospital-at-home care or a conversation at a reception desk, Solomon said.
AMN employs around 3,700 interpreters and in 2022, its interpreters were involved in 15 million patient sessions nationwide, offering services in more than 350 languages.
Rather than employing their own interpreters, more hospitals are beginning to contract with companies like AMN to supply them with full-time and part-time interpreter staff.