Limited-English-proficient (LEP) patients in the United States experience a variety of health care disparities associated with language barriers, including reduced clinical encounter time and substandard medical treatment compared with their English-speaking counterparts. In most current U.S. health care settings, interpretation services are provided by personnel ranging from employed professional interpreters to untrained, ad hoc interpreters such as friends, family, or medical staff. Studies have demonstrated that untrained individuals commit many interpretation errors that may critically compromise patient safety and ultimately prove to be lifethreatening. Despite documented risks, the U.S. health care system lacks a required standardized certification for medical interpreters. The authors propose that the standardization of medical interpreter training and certification would substantially reduce the barriers to equitable care experienced by LEP patients in the U.S. health care system, including the occurrence of preventable clinical errors. Recent efforts of the U.S. federal court system are cited as a successful and realistic example of how these goals may be achieved. As guided by the evolution of the federal court interpreting certification program, subsequent research will be required to demonstrate the improvements and challenges that would result from national certification standards and policy for medical interpreters. Research should examine cost-effectiveness and ensure that certified interpreting services are appropriately used by health care practitioners. Ongoing commitment is required from lawmakers, health care providers, and researchers to remove barriers to care and to demand that equity remain a consistent goal of our health care system.
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