Medical Spanish

Are you interested in improving your medical Spanish?
Would you like to connect with your Spanish-speaking patients better?
Would you like to work more effectively with certified medical interpreters?

The Advanced Nursing Education Workforce (ANEW) grant from PLU’s DNP nurse-practitioner program is providing preceptors with the opportunity for a fully-paid scholarship to an on-line course: Spanish for Healthcare Providers. The ANEW grant can fund the scholarship for up to 10 preceptors. This particular 40-hour course from CANOPY has received an Innovation Award from the National Institutes of Health and is the #1 medical Spanish course.

You must complete the application form to apply for this scholarship. Request a copy of the application and return to the Clinical Preceptor Coordinator at To complete the form, simply click into boxes. A single left click into grayed areas will allow you to fill in blanks with short or long answers. Save a copy of the completed application for your own records. Remember to return the completed form to the Clinical Preceptor Coordinator at

Purpose: The purpose of funding this course is to help preceptors develop better rapport, to enhance the therapeutic relationship, and to improve communication with both the patient and with medical interpreters. Learning 40-hours of medical Spanish demonstrates that, as a provider, you recognize and respect the difficulties of seeking care in a different language. At the beginning, the simple effort to learn how to say hello in someone’s first language shows caring. It also shows that as a provider you are reaching out, trying to meet your patient’s needs.

Speaking Easier than Understanding: As your Spanish becomes more fluent, you can communicate more directly with patients. At first, it will be easier to speak, especially using pre-planned language, than to understand all of what patients say. To start, the provider can explain, “I am going to examine your abdomen/belly now” or “I am going to draw blood” or “Please urinate in the cup.” As you learn more, you can understand more of the patient’s history or other responses to questions.

Goal: Sometimes there is confusion about the goal of health care providers learning medical Spanish. Learning more medical Spanish is not intended to substitute for the use of certified medical interpreters for legal purposes, for example, for explaining a surgical consent. A single 40-hour course alone would not be expected to achieve fluency adequate for certification as a medical interpreter. However, the more medical Spanish the provider learns and knows, the easier and more effective it will be to communicate with interpreters as well as patients. The provider can monitor and if necessary supplement or correct what the interpreter is saying.

Language and Culture: It can be helpful to remember that certified medical interpreters are expected to provide cultural interpretation also. One example is that many Mexican women do not count miscarriages as a pregnancy. If the provider asks how many times a patient has been pregnant, to accurately determine gravidity the interpreter would also know to ask specifically if the patient has lost any early pregnancies.

Most health care providers recognize that the more we can communicate the better. Administrators are also recognizing the value of Spanish-speaking providers. Here is an opportunity to benefit your practice and your career!

Certified Medical Interpreters

CERTIFICATION ORGANIZATIONS: There are currently two organizations accredited to provide certification as a medical interpreter in the United States. One is the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) and the other is the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI). Below is a link to a video describing the similarities and differences between the certification process of the two organizations. CCHI focuses slightly more on cultural and ethical aspects of interpreting and NBCMI focuses slightly more on medical terminology, although both include the whole spectrum of important topics to some degree. There are also other organizations and programs that offer certification but are not accredited. Links to the webpages of the two accredited organizations are also provided below.

MEDICAL INTERPRETING: Medical interpreters in the United States should be fluent in both English and the target language. Fundamentally, interpreters should understand that language embodies and reflects culture and that interpreting also includes cultural interpreting and translation. In addition, medical interpreters should know medical terminology in both languages. Further, medical interpreters need to understand the ethics of interpreting, especially patient confidentiality and HIPAA compliance.

MEDICAL TRANSLATION: Health care professionals might also hear the term medical translation. Certified professionals sometimes make a distinction between interpreting and translating. If so, interpreting refers to spoken language and translating refers to written language.

IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNICATION: The United States Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health provides resources for Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS). A successful lawsuit in the late 1970s noted that the quality of health care typically was compromised for people not speaking English and that this discrimination violated civil rights. The topic of non-compliance with a medical regimen is often related to communication problems and cultural (or sociocultural) differences. As a result, the CLAS standards were adopted. See Standards 5-8 focus specifically on language.

TIPS for working with medical interpreters:

  • Introduce yourself to the interpreter and ask that the interpreter introduce themselves by explaining their role to the patient.
  • If using telephone services on speakerphone, explain to patient. There have been instances when a disembodied voice from the speaker has been unsettling or confusing to a patient.
  • Explain that the interpreter will keep information confidential the same as the healthcare provider does.
  • Use short sentences or phrases and wait for the interpreter to finish each one separately before continuing. This way the interpreter and the patient can understand accurately.

Differences between the two certifying organizations:

Official website with information and registration for certification as a medical interpreter:

Official website with information and registration for certification as a medical interpreter:

Last updated June 30, 2020
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