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Language Services for Non-English Speakers

When to use a medical interpreter

En español | If your loved one speaks limited English, you can help ensure that he or she has access to translation and interpretation services.

  • An interpreter translates words from one language into another language, either verbally or by signing.
  • A translator converts written words. Printed health information in the patient's preferred language is very helpful, but this doesn't replace an interpreter.


Many experts discourage family members from serving as the patient's medical interpreter, even if that person has the language skills to do so. That's because a family member:

  • May be placed in the difficult emotional position of having to convey medical information about someone they care about
  • May not be familiar with medical terms
  • May not be fluent enough for accurate interpretation
  • May leave out or change important information
  • May not be permitted by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) to have access to private health information about the patient.


The law entitles people with limited language skills to receive free services from interpreters who can translate medical terminology and who understand medical confidentiality. Patients are eligible for these services when they are receiving care from:

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Physicians or other providers
  • Home health agencies (if the agencies accept Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement, even if you or your loved one is paying out of pocket for a home health aide or other care)
  • Managed care organizations, such as health maintenance organizations
  • State, county and local health agencies, such as the public health department in your community
  • State Medicaid agencies


Talk to the nurse in charge or any supervisor and ask for interpretation services for your family member. The health service may provide interpretation in one of many ways, including through:

  • Phone-based services, which provide interpretation between health staff and the patient through a carrier such as the AT&T Language Line
  • On-site staff interpreters or freelance professional interpreters
  • Clinical staff (nurses, etc.) who are already multilingual and trained to interpret medical information
  • Community language banks

Remember: If the person you care for cannot understand medical information in English, he or she has the right to language interpretation for free.

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