Bridging the Gap Between Medical Interpreting Certificate and Certification

Hopefully this isn’t news to you: but there is a big difference between having your certificate of completion from a medical interpreter training course and becoming a certified medical interpreter. A nationally-certified medical interpreter in the United States is certified through either the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) or the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). Some states, such as Washington state, have their own certifications as well.

NBCMI and CCHI both have written and oral exams. The written exams cover a variety of topics including medical interpreting codes of ethics, standards of practice, the roles of the medical interpreter, healthcare terminology, cultural competency, and more. The oral exam is conducted in both English and your target language, however not all languages have an oral exam. NBCMI offers their Hub-CMI credential for all languages, which only includes the written exam. CCHI has something similar, called CoreCHI. Only interpreters who pass the oral exam, if available for their target language, can become a CMI (certified medical interpreter – NBCMI) or a CHI (certified healthcare interpreter – CCHI).

A certificate of completion is instead issued at the end of successfully completing a training course of at least 40 hours in medical interpretation. Completing one of these courses is one acceptable way of proving you’ve received training specifically related to medical interpreting. Other acceptable proof of medical interpreter training include college courses related specifically to medical interpreting and on-the-job training. That being said, interpreting experience is not accepted as a substitute for training. Also, having a certificate of completion of a training course does not a certified interpreter make!

“I Have my Certificate, Now What?”

If I had a nickel for every time someone has approached me with this question, I’d be able to buy myself a nice new headset! Not all medical interpreter training courses are created equal, and even if you’ve taken an awesome course and have your certificate, you may not feel prepared to take the NBCMI or CCHI certification exams. I’m here to tell you: that’s okay! It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, it doesn’t mean that you didn’t pay enough attention in class, and it doesn’t mean you’re not cut out to be an interpreter.

Interpreting is like a muscle. Just as you need tools and practice to exercise and strengthen your body, you need tools and practice to strengthen your interpreting skills.

Being an interpreter isn’t as easy as many folks make it out to be, and it requires constant practice and continually learning new terminology. Interpreting is like a muscle: you can read about the exercises you need to do to make your skills stronger, but until you actually jump right in and do them, you’re not going to make that muscle any stronger. In fact, just like working out a muscle group for the first time, getting started with practicing medical interpreting can be awkward and difficult. It’s only after you repeatedly practice, developing good habits and form, do you begin to really flourish.

How Do I Practice Medical Interpreting?

There are many different ways aspiring medical interpreters with their training certificates gain the confidence and skills they need to ace either of the medical interpreting certification exams. We’ll examine a few of these options here, but keep in mind that we don’t recommend all of these options (don’t worry, we’ll tell you why).

Find Practice Materials

Practice comes in all shapes and sizes: YouTube videos for simultaneous practice, medical interpretation books, bilingual recordings for consecutive practice, online healthcare magazines for sight translation, etc. There are certainly medical interpreting practice materials available online, but many content creators only post a small portion of their practice materials publicly online, and they often aren’t the best materials those folks have to offer. Practicing with these materials may require you to piece together a few medical interpreting practice scripts here and a few consecutive interpreting audios there. Furthermore, a script without audio is really only going to be useful with a partner, and practice audios are great for individual practice, but harder to come by. You’ll also find that if you continue to use the same few scripts over and over again, you’ll begin to memorize them, defeating the purpose of working on your memory and note-taking skills! This is why websites like InterpreMed are especially useful, because you can find a bunch of medical interpreting practice scripts and audios all in one place, and new materials are posted regularly.

Practice with a Partner or Group

Before interpreting for real, live patients, many aspiring interpreters find a partner or group to practice with. Not only is this a great way to practice, but working with other people, especially if they have the same goals, is an excellent way to hold yourself accountable. If you don’t show up for a practice session, your study buddies might try to track you down and hold your feet to the fire! Your partner or partners can also give you live feedback on your interpretations. However, a big drawback to practicing with a partner or group is finding medical interpreting practice materials.

Volunteer or Start Working as a Medical Interpreter

Many people go straight from obtaining their training certificate to interpreting in the field, either as a volunteer or working as a medical interpreter with a company or companies that don’t require experience. This may be the least ideal option for practicing, as you may not proficient enough in interpreting yet to be providing language assistance to patients who are in need of medical care. The fact is, you do need experience before working with patients, and unless you’re very well prepared, you could make seemingly simple mistakes that could potentially have disastrous health consequences for the people you’re interpreting for.

A Word to the Wise: if you’re volunteering/working and directly interpreting for patients for the first time, it’s common practice for you to first shadow an experienced interpreter (watch them interpret) and then for an experienced interpreter to shadow you. This is a form of oversight to verify you’re prepared to interpret for patients while at the same time ensuring everything is still being interpreted accurately and completely in the encounter.

Interpreting in a medical setting is both a privilege and a big responsibility. Sometimes a patient’s life, or at the very least their health, can hang in the balance and our ability to interpret accurately, completely, and ethically can have a huge impact on the care that they receive. Whenever a novice interpreter approaches me and says, “I don’t feel comfortable interpreting for real, live patients yet. I don’t think I’m ready,” I want to give them a big high-five and a hug. This shows that they truly care and understand just what a big responsibility being a medical interpreter is! That means they’re pursuing this path for the right reasons and value the health and safety of the patients they will one day interpret for.

Join a Medical Interpreting Practice Community

We here at InterpreMed believe that joining a medical interpreting practice community like ours is the best of both worlds because it provides both a healthy heaping of individual practice at your own pace and many opportunities for practice in groups on our live medical interpreting practice sessions. There’s no need to go hunting down practice scripts or painstakingly scouring the internet for quality practice audios. Everything you need is right in one place and produced by experienced and certified medical interpreters.

One of our ES<>EN consecutive interpreting practice exercises on InterpreMed.
Our amazing Arabic team working in a live meeting on one of our practice scripts!

Near the end of my 40-hour interpreter training, I really wanted some live practice. That’s when I found InterpreMed. The monthly study guides and frequent practice sessions have been so helpful for me to gain confidence and experience! I really appreciate the feedback from Nanyi and the other interpreters I practice with during the sessions. I had my first appointment as a Spanish medical interpreter today and it was in women’s health, which was last month’s study guide. The materials and the practice helped me do so well in this first session! I highly recommend InterpreMed.

Amanda Fischer, InterpreMed member

Nanyi and I work around the clock creating a mind-blowing amount of quality medical interpretation practice materials nearly every day. We’re constantly publishing new scripts in English and Spanish, as well as recording accompanying audio, creating vocabulary exercises, and more. Sound to good to be true? Be sure to check us out on Twitter for our live feed of scheduled meetings, updates, and materials as we publish them!

If you’re ready to make the leap from certificate to certification by getting some interpreting practice under your belt, or if you just want to be more prepared for live medical interpreting, join InterpreMed today!

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