Training & Experience (Medical Interpreting)

To become a certified healthcare interpreter in the USA, a person must first take interpreting courses. I attended an 80-hour course at Greenville Tech. I believe that only 40 hours are required to get certified. I can say however, that that 80-hour course was very basic and the minimum foundation for this profession.


One of the four segments was dedicated solely to Interpreter Ethics. We also studied anatomy physiology, the bones, and a ton of terminology. We also studied different cultures and their expressions and beliefs.


As excellent as the course was, there are things that you cannot learn from a course. Experience in the field has taught me many valuable lessons. Experiences while working have helped me to learn a lot.


At times, circumstances have tested the ethical principles I learned in school. I would face a new difficulty and review the ethical principles and decide. I can say that I have never broken an ethical principle, although I have at times chosen to do something in the unclear grey area.


I know that professionalism starts with proper training and education, followed by lessons learned through experience. Circumstances will arise that will require a decision in the grey area. With a strong educational foundation and experience, a professional is better capable of making those difficult decisions.


Do you need an example?


I once interpreted for an outpatient surgery patient at a surgery center. I interpreted for him until the patient was taken to surgery. When the doctor was finished, I was summoned to work once the patient awoke.


It turned out that the center was so busy, they never gave the patient the nerve block. When she woke up, she was screaming in agonizing pain. They kept administering pain medication with no effect. Finally, the technician arrived to administer the nerve block.  They realized that she was overmedicated and any more could cause an overdose!

A decision was made to take the risk.  I was instructed to stand next to the patient and keep her awake. I was told under no circumstances to let her fall asleep. I needed to talk to her, yell at her, shake her. I was told that if she fell asleep while overdosed, she might not wake up.


I can tell you that I had not signed up for that kind of crisis as an interpreter! I’m supposed to interpret, not desperately try to keep someone awake so she does not die! At the same time, how could I passively stand by and do nothing? I was directed by the medical personnel and her life was hanging in the balance.

Of course, I followed their instructions! Eventually, enough time passed, and they told me it was safe to stop.


Circumstances will arise that don’t fit into the mold for healthcare interpreters. In the end, the professional interpreter will have to decide based on ethics and experience.

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2 thoughts on “Training & Experience (Medical Interpreting)”

  1. This is a great example of how medical interpreting is unique and you responded as a professional who was part of the team and didn’t pull the ‘it’s not part of my job’ or ‘my thick’s code only allows me to interpret’ responses, which unfortunately are taught by instructors who frankly don’t know enough about medical interpreting on the ground. 40 hours are not enough, even 80, and I hope we someday recognize that we need to move from a technician status to a professional status in the eyes of the public, and that will only happen with an educational level that is appropriate. We also need to expect instruction from professionals of the specialization being taught as not all specializations are equal. Thank you for a great case study!

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