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As the number of non-English speakers in the United States who are seeking health care continues to grow, so does the need for medical interpreters who can serve as a liaison between these patients and their doctors.
Medical interpreters have been in short supply, and the demand for them is expected to increase even more, because standards that went into effect Jan. 1 require health care organizations to provide an interpreter for patients who speak limited English.
Even before the new standards were introduced, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted jobs for interpreters and translators would grow by 22 percent over the next decade, faster than for all other occupations.
A nationwide survey of 4,700 doctors, conducted by the nonprofit Center for Studying Health System Change, found that only 55.8 percent of practices with non-English speaking patients provide interpreting services, and 40 percent offer patient-education materials in languages other than English.
Medicaid currently reimburses medical providers for the services of an interpreter. Depending on the state, medical interpreters can make $25 to $50 an hour. In the private sector, they can command upwards of $100 an hour. However, forgoing the services of an interpreter could be even more costly, said Olgierda Furmanek, an associate professor at Wake Forest University who has designed a new graduate-level curriculum in response to this burgeoning career path.
“In a hospital, when there is a language barrier between the patient and the medical professional it slows everything down. Trained medical interpreters bring more efficiency to the overall operation,” Furmanek said. “Without interpreters present, mistakes can happen and they can be costly and tragic.”
In order to be effective, medical interpreters must not only be fluent in a second language but know a great deal of medical terminology, have good memory recall, understand ethics and cultural sensitivities, and be accurate and precise in interpreting and translating medical information. They also must not omit or filter information exchanged between a doctor and a patient.
Beginning this year, Wake Forest will offer an M.A. in Interpreting and Translation Studies with three options for track of study. One is Intercultural Services in Healthcare, which the Winston-Salem, N.C., university says is the first such specialization in the United States; it prepares students for managerial careers in areas of culture-sensitive health care delivery. Another track, Teaching of Interpreting, will be the only one in the Northern Hemisphere educating faculty for college-level interpreting programs.