New degree meets translation needs

More than 55 million Americans aged five and over speak a language other than English at home, according to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau.  As more non-English speakers seek healthcare, the need for medical interpreters who can serve as a liaison between patients and their doctors grows. The demand for medical interpreters is expected to increase even more in 2011 because new standards recently went into effect requiring healthcare organizations to provide an interpreter to patients who speak limited English.

To meet the increasing demand for interpreters, Wake Forest will begin offering a new Master of Arts in Interpreting and Translation Studies. This program will prepare professional staff for working in the growing language industry as it relates to a variety of fields (foreign affairs, media, business, and law), and especially healthcare delivery. Growth in the industry is fueled by the diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds of the American public and the international settings in which Americans work or travel.

The program, developed by Associate Professor of Romance Languages Ola Furmanek and Professor of Romance Languages Sally Barbour, taps the expertise of 14 faculty members in the Departments of Romance Languages and Communication, as well as the School of Medicine and Schools of Business. It has been tested as part of a U.S. Department of Labor pilot grant awarded in 2009. It has three tracks, including the Intercultural Services in Healthcare option — the first such specialization in the United States — which will prepare graduates for managerial careers in areas of culture-sensitive healthcare delivery.

Another track, Teaching of Interpreting, will educate faculty for college-level interpreting programs nationwide and will be the only one in the Northern hemisphere to focus on interpreting pedagogy. The third track, Interpreting and Translation Studies, will educate professional language specialists with an emphasis on the critical area of healthcare delivery.

Last fall, Wake Forest also introduced a new curriculum for an associate degree in healthcare interpreting to be offered in most-needed languages (Spanish, Mandarin, etc.) at community colleges across North Carolina. It was designed by a team of Wake Forest College faculty (Luis Gonzalez, Romance languages; Cecilia Solano, psychology; Ananda Mitra, communication) in collaboration with Davidson County Community College and the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center (Jorge Calles, School of Medicine; Linda Batiz Dorton, Service Excellence).

Furmanek, who leads both the master’s and the associate degree projects, said the new programs include a healthcare delivery track because medical interpreting currently lacks professional rigor. While there are many certificate programs available for medical interpreters, no national guidelines exist regarding the proper training of medical interpreters that would help potential employers find qualified individuals.

Besides being fluent in a second language, medical interpreters must know a great deal of medical terminology, have good memory recall, understand ethics and cultural sensitivities, and be accurate and precise in interpreting and translating medical information. They also cannot omit or filter information exchanged between a doctor and a patient.

“It’s not enough to know anatomy and biology to be a doctor, so why would simply being bilingual be enough to be a medical interpreter?” said Furmanek. “Medical interpreters are professionals who are part of the healthcare team.”

Career opportunities are promising for properly trained medical interpreters. Federal laws have been on the books for years requiring medical institutions to provide interpreters to non-native speakers, but there has been little enforcement of the provisions until recently. Now the Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies more than 18,000 healthcare organizations and programs in the United States, has established new standards requiring hospitals to provide language interpreting and translation services.

The new provisions are expected to further fuel the demand for medical interpreters, which was already high given the influx of non-native speakers to the United States. Even before the new standards were introduced, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted jobs for interpreters and translators would grow by 22 percent over the next decade, faster than the average for all other occupations.

For more information about the new programs contact Furmanek or Barbour. Or see

Categories: Faculty, For Alumni, For Parents, Top Stories, Wake Forest College