Imagine you are on holiday abroad when you suddenly feel an overwhelming pain in your side. You travel to the closest hospital to seek treatment, yet none of the staff speak more than rudimentary English. You try to explain the location of the pain and what it feels like yet are met with puzzled expressions. Unable to communicate about your health problem, you are left frustrated and unsure what to do.

Medical interpreters are professional language experts who are trained to provide support in this kind of situation. They are fluent in two or more languages and will have a good understanding of common medical terms and how to use them. They can be an invaluable source of support for both medical professionals and patients.

Let’s learn more about what medical interpreters do, how they offer support and some of the challenges facing medical interpreting today.


Related: When do you need interpreting services?


What services do medical interpreters offer?

A medical interpreter works with doctors, nurses, hospital staff and patients to translate conversations in real-time between two (or more) languages. They must translate exactly what is said as accurately as possible.

Medical interpreters provide support in a variety of settings:

  • Appointments: Medical interpreters will attend GP surgeries or appointments with specialists to help translate the patient’s symptoms and diagnosis.
  • Explaining medical care: Interpreters explain the diagnosis to patients, as well as telling them what medications or other treatment they will need, how often to take them, and how to use any devices. The interpreter will also explain the next steps in the patient’s care.
  • Speak for the patient: Medical interpreters can be a huge support for patients. They translate the patient’s description of their symptoms and any questions they might have about their treatment. Medical interpreters will also be sensitive to cultural differences and beliefs about how medical treatment is given.

How do medical interpreters work?

Medical interpreters are sometimes employed by medical facilities (hospitals, care homes or GP’s surgeries) in areas with a large population of people from a specific linguistic minority. However, they more often work on a freelance basis or through an agency, getting sent to medical facilities or care homes when needed.

They often perform their duties in a face-to-face setting – especially for the diagnosis of any physical conditions. Sometimes they may also be present for operations and procedures, including surgery. It is usually preferable to offer face-to-face interpreting when discussing end-of-life care or very sensitive topics.

That said, medical interpreters often work over the telephone. This is usually suitable for routine appointments or things like vaccinations. Sometimes interpreting ‘hotlines’ are used if the patient realises they aren’t able to explain their condition. Telephone medical interpreting is also often used if the doctor needs translation for languages that are less frequently spoken and where there isn’t an interpreter available locally.

Challenges with medical interpreting

Although medical interpreters are highly trained professionals and offer great quality service, there are several problems that emerge when we rely too heavily on their services.

  • Shortages: In countries like the UK, there is a real shortage of qualified medical interpreters – especially for less commonly spoken languages. There are hundreds of languages spoken in the UK and millions of people struggle to communicate in English. Unfortunately, most interpreters speak a relatively limited number of common languages, such as Polish, Urdu, French or Spanish – while other less commonly spoken languages are left unsupported.


  • Distribution: A second problem for medical interpreting in the UK is the distribution of interpreters. The vast majority of interpreters are based in and around large cities. This means that tourists or migrant workers in rural and remote parts of the country may lack access to interpreters if they need to seek medical treatment.


  • Availability: Interpreters are often in high demand, 24 hours a day, seven days per week. It is unrealistic to expect them to always be available and on-call for interpretation, especially at nights and weekends.


Technology can support medical interpreting

Speechly is a ground-breaking mobile application that provides high-quality and instantaneous translation of audio between languages – and feels much the same as using a human interpreter.

The technology allows doctors and patients to speak to one another in 45 global languages, discuss diagnoses and treatments, ask any important questions and manage people’s healthcare effectively. The app is easy to use and provides a transcript of conversations that can be viewed and shared after any appointment for reference. Available anytime and anywhere, the app needs little more than an internet connection, and works on mobile and desktop computers.


Brochure: Digitise Healthcare Interpretation with Speechly


Could your GP surgery, hospital, care home, or medical facility benefit from the support of an always-on, inexpensive, and easy-to-use medical interpreting service? Contact us to learn how Speechly can help.