Translation Matters: The Language of Medicine

The more observant of us will notice that the NHS Choices website now has a translate function (at the top of the website), provided by Google Translate, which allows users to translate the website into any of the languages that is offered by Google. Not only is it free, but it is quick and easy to use, albeit a little unreliable, but any native speaker should be able to understand, which is more important than perfect syntax and grammar. Most UK residents who do not speak English will benefit from this move, unless, of course, you "speak" British Sign Language!

Medicine is a lot about good communication. Without efficient and effective communication, the NHS couldn't work properly to deliver its good standard of care. This new, useful addition to the website will assist those who have difficulty understanding English in availing of the NHS services, which is becoming increasingly important as Britain becomes a more multicultural society.

Although the free translation service for the NHS Choices website has only just started today, the costly bilingual services for those who need an interpreter or translator in the NHS has been around for longer.

BBC conducted research into the cost of bilingual services in 2006 and revealed that the NHS expenditure in 2005 was at a staggering £55 million! This was obviously an issue, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government asked for a review of the language services was made across the government.

Three years after BBC's "inquest" into the matter, a DailyMail article says that the NHS spends £255,000 a year on these translation services, nearly a £55 million cut in translation expenditure. Good news, it seems.

As with any issue, the two sides to the argument seem to polarise most people.

One side says that when demand is needed, the translation service should be provided, because it will be tantamount to discrimination against an ethnic minority or against immigrants, and the language barrier would cease to exist since bridges are being made via the service. Furthermore, the Race Relations Act in 1976 was enacted to ensure that the whole community, no matter what race, religion or first language should have access to the "provision of services."

The other side says that the translation services should not be available at all, since it is too costly, slow, and does not do anything for the majority of people except deviate funding from elsewhere. This reasoning takes backing from the Human Rights Act which states that translation is only needed when a person is arrested or charged with a criminal offences, but says nothing about the provision of translation in the NHS. Also, taking away translation services means that those who do not speak English will learn to speak English.

I don't see it as simply as that. I realise that it is costly to spend £250,000 a year on translation, but taking away the services is not going to make everyone happy. I think GPs, nurses and other healthcare professionals should be encouraged to learn new languages so that language provisions are not needed to be paid for and that interpreters should be limited to emergency, inpatient care and NHS direct.

Many cuts could be made to ensure that only the more important languages are covered by native language speakers in NHS direct. For example, most, if not all, Filipinos can speak English, since English is an official language in the Philippines and this can be easily found out by a quick Google search. With this information in mind, the translation of the many Philippine languages such as Cebuano and Hiligaynon should therefore not be covered by the NHS. Besides, such a move would encourage those few non-English speaking Filipinos to learn to speak English. Cuts could be made by having health resources such as medical advice in other languages available online and in GP clinics, instead of having to employ many interpreters on NHS direct.

Furthermore, I believe that having all these provisions for any one who wants to avail of any of our health service would have no incentive to learn English, especially in places where the ethnic minority is White British who speak English.

If doctors and nurses learnt to speak rudimentary elements of other languages, especially the elements that would be most required in Medicine, translation costs could be decreased hugely, although there may be additional costs for training doctors if the training would be funded by the NHS. I can now imagine British doctors speaking French in a bad accent... "Il faut prendre ce comprimé trois fois par jour."

Besides, who wouldn't want to learn another language? Maybe it's just me who does, but I love languages, so much so that I've taken French and Spanish GCSE, got A*s (with full marks in the speaking exam!) and I have done a CBLC course in Japanese, and have an ASSET entry level qualification in Italian. I have also taken British Sign Language as a course at school, which sadly did not lead to a qualification, but has made me experience the difficulties faced by deaf people. I also know ein bisschen German from my own studies. I think it's really important to learn languages as a doctor, not only for communication, but to be able to understand people's culture, how they see things, and, fundamentally, be more empathic towards people of different cultures, nationalities and backgrounds.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen as to what the new government will do with regards to the provision of NHS translation services, but what is important is that communication still remains as one of the most important virtues in Medicine.

Alla prossima volta!



belle said...

Luckily, I can't see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions (remember telephone operators?).
Especially with medical translation, where peoples' health is at stake, you shouldn't be relying on something that could just leave you stranded at a critical moment.

Marco Narajos said...

Totally agree! Thanks for that!