Medical Students Should Help Fill US Interpreter Shortage, Study Suggests

The Slator Language Industry Job Index (LIJI) continues to climb, indicating a buoyant industry with increasing job opportunities for linguists. In the US, for instance, despite initial misgivings about the Trump administration’s regulatory environment, the demand for medical interpreters has outstripped supply to the point that it has led to a nationwide shortage.

The shortage is nothing new. As reported in January 2018, one hospital in Texas had 10 full-time interpreters supporting 40,000 Spanish-speaking patients. Another Texas hospital, said to have the largest roster of medical interpreters on staff (85) in the US, needed interpretation for some 1,000 patient visits each day.

One way to address the gap is to transition to virtual remote interpreting (VRI); although, in a medical setting, communication can be a sensitive matter. Another, is to widen the pool of interpreters.

According to a peer-reviewed article in the AMA Journal of Ethics, “Medical interpreters are essential for communication between patients with limited English proficiency (LEP) and their clinicians. However, there is a shortage of interpreters nationwide; free clinics, where a large majority of patients with LEP receive care, are especially affected by this shortage.”

Author Gabriela Aitken posits that medical schools associated with free clinics and its Spanish-speaking students can help fill the gap. Already, the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine (SSOM) has “funded and established an interpreter certification program for medical students” in tandem with Interpreter Services at Loyola Medicine, its affiliated teaching hospital.

The rationale behind such a program? Aitken points out it not only helps bolster “self-perceived interpreter efficacy [and] patient and physician satisfaction,” but also builds “a workforce of well-trained, culturally competent physicians.”

Site of the pilot program during academic years 2015–2016 through 2017–2018 was Loyola’s Access to Care Clinic. Every year, about 20 students volunteer as interpreters. In AY 2015–2016, Loyola certified four students as interpreters; in AY 2016–2017, six. The program for AY 2018–2019 is ongoing.

Although the clinic has access to phone interpreters, it has none onsite. No surprise then that the impact of the student volunteers has been significant. Over 550 interpreting hours were logged by students serving some 400 Spanish-speaking patients in AY 2016–2017 alone. And yet the “significant need for in-person interpretation” remains and the clinic continues to welcome non-certified student interpreters.

The article also pointed out how a recent study showed that “professional interpreters with at least 100 hours of training had a significantly lower proportion of potentially consequential errors than professional interpreters with less than 100 hours of training (2% vs 12%).” And that the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters only requires, at least, 40 hours of training for eligibility as a Certified Medical Interpreter for those not certified through college courses.

SSOM, which has now developed a certification curriculum, “plans to expand the Interpreter Certification Program with the goal of certifying a higher proportion of student interpreters,” the article said.

Author Aitken concludes, “making certification mandatory for student volunteers could be considered in the future if doing so does not significantly decrease the number of interpreters available to the clinic.”
The latest US census showed that 66.6 million residents speak a language other than English at home — a number that has doubled since 1990 and tripled since 1980, as previously reported — and more than 41 million speak Spanish.