FAQ - Certification of Interpreters in Health Care

What is certification?
Certification is a process by which a governmental, academic or professional organization attests to or guarantees that an individual is qualified to provide a particular service or perform in a particular area of practice. Certification involves formal assessment, using an instrument that has been tested for validity and reliability so that the certifying body can be confident that the individuals it certifies have the knowledge and skills needed to do the job.

I have a certificate of completion from a training program. Am I certified?
No. This is a common confusion in the field. A certificate of completion simply shows that you finished a training program. Certification shows that the certifying body is guaranteeing that you are qualified: that you have demonstrated the knowledge and abilities that a scientifically-designed process has shown to be necessary to provide a service. While a certificate of completion is certainly a valuable document to prove your training, it is not the same as a certification. Think of it as the difference between a doctor who has graduated from medical school and one who has passed her Board exams.

Is national certification available for healthcare interpreters?
Yes, there are several options, depending on the working language pair.

Interpreters for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing are certified through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). RID offers a variety of credentials under its generalist category. Specialist credentials are also offered in legal interpreting and interpreting for the performing arts. At this time, RID does not offer a specialist credential in healthcare interpreting. For more information, see RID’s website.   

At this time, spoken language interpreters can choose between two national certification processes. The National Council on Interpreting in Health Care has officially endorsed the certification process of the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI).

  1. The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) is a national non-profit organization that certifies spoken-language interpreters through a national, valid, credible, vendor-neutral testing program. CCHI awards the credential of Certified Healthcare Interpreter (CHITM) to interpreters in a limited group of language pairs who pass both a written and oral exam. As of December 2011, the only language pair being certified is English-Spanish. Certification will become available for speakers of other language pairs as oral testing is developed in those languages; for example, CCHI will start certifying Arabic and Mandarin in early 2012.

    The credential of Associate Healthcare Interpreter (AHI TM) is awarded to interpreters of other languages who pass a written test only.

    For more information, see CCHI's website.

  2. The National Board for Certification of Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) is a national organization that certifies spoken-language interpreters. NBCMI awards the credential of Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI) to interpreters in a limited group of language pairs who pass both a written and oral exam. As of December 2011, the only language pair being certified is English-Spanish. Certification will become available for speakers of other language pairs as oral testing is developed in those languages; for example, NBCMI says it will start certifying Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and Vietnamese in early 2012.

    For more information, see NBCMI’s website.

How do I know which process I should use?

To evaluate a certification process, or to compare two processes, you will want to ask questions such as the following:

  • What credential is available in my working language pair?
    In addition to asking what language pairs are being certified right now, make sure to ask in what languages tests are being developed; certification in your working language pair may not be available today, but it may become available soon.

  • Is the certification process valid and reliable?
    Validity is a measure of whether a process really measures what it says it measures and nothing else. Reliability is a measure of how consistently the process measures knowledge and skills, regardless of the rater or the time of testing. To learn more about these concepts and how to apply them to a certification process, see part one of Certification of Health Care Interpreters in the United States A Primer, a Status Report, and Considerations for National Certification.

    In order to evaluate a particular certification process’ validity and reliability, ask to see the technical report, which should be publicly available.

  • Is the certifying body credible?
    A credible certifying body will have no conflicts of interest, either as an organization or among the individuals on its governing body. How is the certifying body governed? Who makes the rules? Who benefits financially from the certifying body’s policies and activities?  How are candidate fees used?
  • Has the organization received non-profit status from the IRS?
    Non-profit status is awarded by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. There are 26 categories of non-profit organizations, all of which are exempt to some degree from federal taxes. Some are public charities or private foundations as defined under section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code. These organizations are operated exclusively for “religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, to foster national or international amateur sports competition, to promote the arts, or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals.”[1] The NCIHC, for example, is a 501(c)(3), as our mission is principally educational.

    Another category covers professional associations (considered by the IRS to be “business leagues”) as defined under section 501(c)(6) of the federal tax code. According to tax code, “no part of a business league's net earnings may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual and it may not be organized for profit to engage in an activity ordinarily carried on for profit (even if the business is operated on a cooperative basis or produces only enough income to be self-sustaining).”[2] That means that individuals certified by a 501(c)(6) can be confident that their test fees are not going to benefit any individual or corporation other than the association itself.

    The IRS considers certification to be a function of professional organizations, not of public charities. This is why court interpreters can be certified by the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) and translators certified by the American Translators Association (ATA), which are both 501(c)(6) organizations, and not by each organization’s 501(c)(3) arm.

  • Has the certification process been accredited by the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE, formerly the National Organization for Competency Assurance, NOCA)?
    ICE has established a system for assuring that certifying bodies have designed their structure and their testing in a credible manner. ICE accreditation shows that a certifying body’s work meets strict criteria and is credible. A certifying body may apply for ICE accreditation only after it has been testing for one year or has certified 500 individuals.

  • Does the process test the skills that I am asked to use in my work?
    Check the test blueprint to learn what the exam tests for, and how much of the exam is dedicated to each topic or skill.

  • How much does the entire process cost?
    Remember to include registration fees. Ask as well about the fees to retake the test if you do not pass the first time, the waiting period between re-testing and if there are any limitations about how many times you may take the test.

  • Where and how often is testing offered? How long will it take to complete the process?
    By knowing where and when the written and oral tests are offered, you can calculate additional costs related to travel. You will also want to know how long the whole process is likely to take, from beginning to end, including the lapse of time between registration and the tests, and between taking the tests and receiving the results.

  • What are the pre-requisites for taking the exam?
    You will want to know if you need to do some preliminary work, such as training or taking a language screening test, before you are eligible to register for a particular test.

  • What will I need to do to maintain my credential over time?
    Find out for how long the certification is valid and what you need to do to re-certify when the credential expires. Will you need to take continuing education to keep your certification valid? If so, how much and how often?

  • Which credential is being accepted by the people or organizations that might hire me?
    This is, perhaps, the most pertinent of all the questions. Before you choose a certification process, find out which certification the people who hire interpreters will accept or may require.

Is certification the only way to guarantee the quality of an interpreter?

No. Certification is only one way to identify if an interpreter is qualified. Other ways include:

  • Qualify interpreters based on language screening and training.
    Certification is only one step in guaranteeing quality in interpreting. By qualifying interpreters based on language screening and training, states can encourage interpreters to take these important steps, which will both improve the quality of interpreting in the state and prepare these interpreters for certification.

  • Develop a more informal assessment process.
    The NCIHC's helpful Guide to Initial Assessment of Interpreter Qualifications, April 2001, can assist you in creating an assessment process.

Why should I bother with certification?

If you are an interpreter, certification is one way to prove your skill level to potential employers and to colleagues on the healthcare team. It puts you on the level with other healthcare professionals, all of which must be credentialed in some way.

If you hire interpreters, certification is one well-recognized means of assuring that an interpreter has a certain level of knowledge and skills.