Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how the medical interpreter certification could, potentially, have a direct impact on the number of interpreters allowed to work in hospital settings, the most common arena for this role.

Keep in mind that, it is assumed that not every person out there doing interpreting work is qualified culturally and linguistically to perform such work. Certainly, it is a matter of time before advancing effective communication for the LEP, becomes a matter of accreditation.

Inevitably, when one starts talking about accreditation, The Joint Commission, a non-for-profit organization who, since 1951, accredits and certifies today more than 19,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States, comes to mind. The Joint Commission’s “approval seal” is, indubitably, recognized nationwide as “a symbol of quality that reflects an organization’s commitment to meeting certain performance standards.” I believe the same concept of measuring clear performance standards is what has fueled the medical certification initiative for interpreters.

In retrospective, if hospitals have been, for so long, required to follow specific rules in order to stay “in business,” conceiving that these hospitals would push all interpreters, particularly, those that work as independent contractors, to become certified might not be so far off. However, the same Joint Commission, which has been the quality gatekeeper for all these hospitals, has demonstrated to be careful in choosing the timing to suggest the notion of medical certification for interpreters, as the next step to promote their vision.

Specifically, I am referring to the introduction of the Joint Commission’s Patient-Centered Communication Standards. Released in January of 2010, these standards will become effective as of July 1, 2012, becoming a definitive marker in the accreditation process for hospitals across the nation. In them, although certification for interpreters is not yet a requirement, for the first time, under requirement HR.01.02.01, the hospitals are called to:

– Integrate unique patient needs into new or existing hospital policies.
– Ensure the competency of individuals providing language services.

Again, not once is the word certification mentioned, however, under the requirement’s element of performance, it is stated that qualifications for language interpreters and translators may be met through:

– Language proficiency assessment.
– Education
– Training.
– Experience.

Does this equal certification? Not yet! However, it does call for a different type of commitment from the hospitals involved in the well-intended process of supporting and integrating the concepts of effective communication, cultural competence, and patient centered care- which the Joint Commission requires. But, can hospitals do this alone? Absolutely not! There’s too much at stake and no time to lose. A collaborative effort would then seem to be the answer to the challenge. For example, hospitals clearly need to be open to the idea of supporting well-structured training initiatives- if available. Otherwise, where are prospect interpreters going to gain that “experience” called for by the Joint Commission as part of the qualifications defined in the new standards? Training programs for interpreters by themselves can be great, but certainly not as effective as if they are combined with real observation and mentorship. So that should be the goal: supporting positive change and advancing effective communication for the LEP from every angle, a true common effort.