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J Gen Intern Med. 2007 Nov;22 Suppl 2:331-5.

Assessing dual-role staff-interpreter linguistic competency in an integrated healthcare system.

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Sutter Health Institute for Research and Education, San Francisco, CA, USA.



Interpreter services for medical care increase physician-patient communication and safety, yet a "formal certification" process to demonstrate interpreter competence does not exist. Testing and training is left to individual health care facilities nationwide. Bilingual staff are often used to interpret, without any assessment of their skills. Assessing interpreters' linguistic competence and setting standards for testing is a priority.


To assess dual-role staff interpreter linguistic competence in an integrated health care system to determine skill qualification to work as medical interpreters.


Dual-role staff interpreters voluntarily completed a linguistic competency assessment using a test developed by a language school to measure comprehension, completeness, and vocabulary through written and oral assessment in English and the second language. Pass levels were predetermined by school as not passing, basic (limited ability to read, write, and speak English and the second language) and medical interpreter level. Five staff-interpreter focus groups discussed experiences as interpreters and with language test.


A total of 840 dual-role staff interpreters were tested for Spanish (75%), Chinese (12%), and Russian (5%) language competence. Most dual-role interpreters serve as administrative assistants (39%), medical assistants (27%), and clinical staff (17%). Two percent did not pass, 21% passed at basic level, 77% passed at medical interpreter level. Staff that passed at the basic level was prone to interpretation errors, including omissions and word confusion. Focus groups revealed acceptance of exam process and feelings of increased validation in interpreter role.


We found that about 1 in 5 dual-role staff interpreters at a large health care organization had insufficient bilingual skills to serve as interpreters in a medical encounter. Health care organizations that depend on dual-role staff interpreters should consider assessing staff English and second language skills.

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