The Personal Rewards of Medical Interpreting

The United States is often described as a melting pot of cultures, nationalities, and languages. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the number of  Americans who spoke a language other than English at home was 67.8 million in 2019—nearly triple the 23.1 million reported in 1980. That equates to more than one out of every five homes today.

Thus, the demand for medical interpreters continues to grow. 

“The doors are wide open in this field right now,” said Elena M., a certified medical interpreter (CMI) Spanish, language operations manager for AMN Healthcare Language Services, during an AMN live show. “There is a lot of need.”

While translation by family and friends often occurs,the stakes are too high to risk a mishandled translation by a family member.

“I've always had this impression in my mind that interpreting is a very noble profession,” Elena said. “It's a really special place that we are put in as professionals, and we have to be very respectful of that.”

Sympathy pains: An interpreter’s story of getting personally involved

One of Elena’s first jobs as a medical interpreter was a telephone session in a labor delivery room.

“The doctor was saying ‘Push, push,’ and I didn't realize I was pushing along with the patient,” Elena recalled. “I got so into it. I was tensing my body up and pushing and telling her to push. But I didn't realize I was doing it until the next day when I woke up and I felt like, ‘Wow, I'm coming down with the flu.’ My body was killing me. I told my husband, ‘You know, I think I'm getting really sick.’ And then it dawned on me, ‘Ohh, I had a baby yesterday.’”

“That [memory] always makes me laugh because you don't realize the impact, not only emotionally but physically, that these sessions sometimes have on you,” Elena said.

She added that hearing a baby cry for the first time after a long labor and delivery is special and rewarding. And it does not get old.

Making a difference during difficult times

Elena’s experience is a reminder that medical interpreters do more than simply provide access to healthcare information. They are often in the room when a clinician delivers “bad news,” such as a cancer diagnosis or a poor prognosis. Or they may need to discuss sensitive topics. For instance, giving a patient information about a sexually transmitted infection and its treatment.

“You get to be in those sessions at the most vulnerable time in a person's life, and you're a stranger to them,” Elena said. “They don't know you and yet they're talking about their most personal issues in front of a stranger. And I always have to remind myself, and this is really dear to me, you have to be respectful of that.”

One way to be respectful is to let patients talk for themselves and not intervene. She added that patients’ relationship with their providers is vital. 

Opportunities for medical interpreters

With the increasing demand for medical interpreters, plenty of jobs for medical interpreters exist, including both remote and in-person opportunities. Most interpreters employed by AMN Healthcare work remotely via video. The company also offers contract opportunities for in-person medical interpreters. Medical interpreters can work part-time or full-time.

Professional medical interpreters must show language proficiency and learn the terminology of the medical specialties where they are working. Many take advantage of national certification programs, but certification is not available in all languages. Everyone should complete a 40-hour training course.

“It’s more than just being bilingual,” said Kristen B, talent acquisition manager at AMN Healthcare Language Services. “There’s note-taking involved. There are memory retention skills involved. There's the emotional [aspect].”

The professional responsibilities of medical interpreting 

Medical interpreters understand the vital role they play in the delivery of healthcare and can reap the rewards of a job well done.

“One of my very first experiences with interpreting was the thing that got me hooked,” said Damian E., certified healthcare interpreter (CHI) Spanish, language operations supervisor for AMN Healthcare Language Services, during the AMN Live show. “It was one of my first sessions. I found myself in the trauma room. There were many different specialists there within that team, including a plastic surgeon. A lot of different specialties there. And then there was me.”

That experience—working with highly skilled and educated clinicians and playing an integral role—convinced Damian that being a medical interpreter was a profession he could make into a successful career.

“What's helped me is always just having positive self-talk,” Damian said. He added that he has continued to work hard, study, and practice in order to do the best job possible to help patients and clinicians.

Career opportunities with AMN Healthcare Language Services

Medical interpreters who work with AMN Healthcare can choose from a variety of interpreter jobs that help them make a difference. Those who want to move up in the organization also have an abundance of opportunities.

“I started with AMN [Healthcare Language Services] as a video interpreter and that career path led me here to language operations manager,” Elena said. “A lot of the promotions, I would say the majority of them, are internal to our certified interpreters.”

Many medical interpreters choose to remain in their positions because of the rewards felt in helping people through difficult times.

“You can really be a part of people's lives,” Kristen said. “You can have an impact.”

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