Banner reading June Interpreter Spotlight, Jordan Aviles, Mexico. Owner of Desert Comms and Spanish Medical Interpreter

Medical Interpreter or Translator: What’s the Difference?

For high-quality treatment to be provided, effective communication between healthcare professionals and patients is essential. This is particularly true in multilingual healthcare settings where communication can be hampered by language limitations and miscommunications can jeopardize patient safety and health outcomes.

Healthcare practitioners sometimes enlist the aid of interpreters or translators to help them overcome these language barriers by facilitating communication between healthcare personnel and patients who do not speak the same language. 

Unfortunately, a lot of individuals interchange the phrases “interpreter” and “translator,” which might lead to misunderstandings. We will explore the distinctions between these two professions in this blog article. 

Who is a Medical Interpreter? 

A medical (or healthcare) interpreter is a trained professional who helps facilitate spoken or signed communication between a healthcare provider and a patient who does not share the same language. Throughout the consultation, examination, or treatment procedure, the interpreter is present and accurately relays what the patient and healthcare professional say or sign to one another in each language.

Healthcare interpreters have a high level of language proficiency (or fluency) that has been tested in all their working languages, have had medical interpreting training, and have a thorough knowledge of medical terminology and processes. Also, they have followed professional ethics and standards, which include how to remain impartial and how to protect patient and provider confidentiality. 

A great resource to learn more about medical interpreters and the specialized skills they possess is the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care

Who is a Medical Translator? 

On the other hand, a medical translator is a professionally trained linguist who translates key written documents essential for providing high-quality medical care, such as patient intake questionnaires, prescriptions, informed consent forms, discharge summaries, informational brochures and medical records.

Medical translators need a solid command of medical terminology and practices in addition to being highly proficient, or fluent, in all the languages they work in. Translators follow their own professional code of ethics that safequards accuracy and the confidentiality of both the patient and provider or medical organization. 

A great resource to learn more about medical translators and the specialized skills they possess is American Translators Association Medical Division

Medical Interpreter vs. Medical Translator: Key Differences 

Interpreting and translation are separate, though related, skills.  Medical interpreters and medical translators both play essential yet distinct roles in fostering communication in multilingual healthcare settings. 

  • Communication Format: The medical interpreter facilitates spoken or signed communication in real-time, while the medical translator works with written documents. 
  • Scope of Work: The medical interpreter works with patients during consultations, exams, or during treatment, while a medical translator works with written medical documents that supports the patient – provider encounter, before or after the consultation. 
  • Language Proficiency:  Both medical interpreters and translators need to have their proficiency (or fluency) in all working languages tested or demonstrated through formal education. They both have a solid command of medical terminology and procedures. Medical interpreters use their knowledge of medicine on the spot when patients and providers meet. Translators use their knowledge to craft accurate and complete written translations of key documents in healthcare.   


In conclusion, medical translators and medical interpreters are both crucial specialists in multilingual healthcare settings. Although medical translators deal with written medical papers, medical interpreters enhance real-time spoken or signed communication between patients and healthcare practitioners. To promote efficient communication and high-quality patient care, it is crucial for healthcare professionals to understand the distinctions between these two professions and where their skillsets fit best in their multilingual healthcare services.