By Tatiana González-Cestari, PhD, CHITM, Director of Language Service Advocacy.

The difference between qualification vs. certification for interpreters is in the level and degree of training an interpreter receives.

From our more than 15 years of supporting hospital staff and experts in the healthcare interpreting industry, we know there can be a lot of confusion around the terminology used or some definitions that are unclear. So, we thought it might be valuable to provide answers to those terms that are routinely used to help you make informed decisions that lead to improved clinical and financial outcomes.

What do interpretation companies mean when they say “qualified”?

Have you ever asked that question? Generally, a person “qualified” for a job is one who meets the job description criteria set by the company. Therefore, this term can be relative and depends on the quality standards set by each vendor.

At Cloudbreak, we take quality and compliance very seriously, and thus don’t use our own definition, but meet and exceed the definition of qualified interpreter shown in Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. To us, a minimally qualified interpreter is a bilingual individual who has proven:

  • language skills proficiency;
  • interpreting skills proficiency (able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially);
  • they understand the code of ethics or professional conduct and standards of practice;
  • they have any necessary specialized vocabulary, terminology, and phraseology;
  • they have completed all requirements to apply for national certification as a healthcare interpreter, which includes passing a nationally recognized qualifying medical interpreter training

What’s more, many “qualified” interpreters who may know the language are not trained in interpreting virtually or in the complex and emotionally charged context of medical terminology and practices. Our required onboarding and continuing education programs dive deep into the implications of interpreting remotely as well as understanding terminology and healthcare.

What’s the difference between qualified and certified?

Many interpretation companies stop at “qualified,” and yet others loosely use the term “certified.” But certified against what criteria?

At Cloudbreak, a certified interpreter is one who has successfully obtained national certification for spoken or sign language. National certification for healthcare interpreters is achieved by passing one or two independent, professional exams (the number depends on the non-English language that the interpreter uses) developed and provided by the corresponding organizations. The certification process is like that of other professions in the US such as nursing, engineering, dentistry, etc. as they need to take and pass a professional exam to obtain it.

As a result of our training efforts and commitment to quality, Cloudbreak’s passing rate for the CCHI national certification written exam is 90.1%, which is greater than the passing rate nationwide (see the national passing rate for this exam in CCHI’s Annual Reports).

What continuing education is necessary to maintain certification and relevance?

As healthcare is a dynamic industry, initial training is only enough to get started. While some companies may “certify” their interpreters upon hiring, they may do very little to maintain skills and certification, depending on what certification framework they employ. Conversely, ongoing education is a core process at Cloudbreak to ensure continued skill-building and contextual familiarity to improve outcomes.

As proof of our commitment to the education of our interpreters and the interpreting community at large, we offer more than eight webinars per year that are pre-approved by RID/ACET, CCHI/CEAP, IMIA, and Washington State DSHS. The topics included in our webinars vary from healthcare and medical terminology to cultural awareness, interpreting skills onsite and remotely, ethics, etc. With the number of Continuing Education Units (CEUs) pre-approved, we surpassed the minimum requirements for most certifying bodies to renew national certification in the US. In addition, we require our video interpreters to complete more CEUs per year than the number needed for national certification renewal, ensuring that they aren’t only the best in the industry, but that they remain so.

What types of ongoing training, testing, and other quality measures are available for interpreters in addition to the third-party certification?

The potential for ongoing professional development is limitless, yet oftentimes an investment that independent interpreters or interpretation companies are unwilling to make while keeping rates below market value. These can be particularly challenging for healthcare institutions opting for support from interpreters who are not specialists in the needs of healthcare. At Cloudbreak, we’re not willing to compromise on quality. At a minimum, Cloudbreak Health requires the following from all video interpreters prior to performing interpretations:

  • Pass a criminal background check and drug screening
  • Pass a bilingual fluency and/or medical interpreting assessment given by a neutral third party, in both English and non-English language(s)
  • Pass a medical interpreting training that meets the eligibility requirements to apply for national certification
  • Make a commitment to further develop his or her skills and knowledge in healthcare and in interpreting
  • Successfully complete Martti’s comprehensive onboarding training, which focuses on:
    • HIPAA Compliance and Confidentiality
    • Professionalism
    • U.S. Healthcare System
    • Camera Presence and Basic Troubleshooting
    • Customer Service
    • Cultural Competency
    • Quality Assurance Guidelines
    • Code of Ethics/Professional Conduct and Standards of Practice

In addition, Cloudbreak’s ASL interpreters are required to pass our Medical Screening Assessment prior to hire to ensure quality medical interpretation. This screening was created in collaboration with the faculty of Columbus State Community College’s Interpreter Education Program, a nationally recognized ASL Interpreter Training Program.

Why do we insist on such rigorous qualifications when others don’t? What does service look like when provided by non-certified interpreters?

Although using a recognized program such as The Community Interpreter International or Bridging the Gap as qualifying medical interpreter training teaches the basic skills, due to the shorter program durations, they may not cover all ongoing aspects of the interpreting profession. We use these great trainings to get new interpreters ready to perform as interpreters, but by also requiring our interpreters to have continuing education and national certification, we make them grow and learn to their own benefit, that of our partners and their patients.

In other words, national certification is the most comprehensive way to demonstrate that an interpreter has all the skills needed to be a professional interpreter. Someone who has passed the national certification exam(s) can prove they have:

  • language skills proficiency;
  • interpreting skills proficiency (able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially);
  • comprehension of the code of ethics and standards of practice;
  • any necessary specialized vocabulary, terminology, and phraseology;
  • a commitment to continue to improve and be up-to-date on things related to the field by taking CEUs (this is a requirement to renew certification; similar to other healthcare providers need to complete);
  • proven interpreting experience as it is also mandatory, in some cases, to complete a minimum of interpretation hours to renew certification.

The impact of these investments in our interpreters includes everything from the greater patient and provider satisfaction, to shorter encounters which speeds patient throughout and reduces the total cost of interpretation services.

Remember, always ask what “qualified” or “certified” means to those talking to you about it!