NHS Hires Welsh Language Champions To Support Welsh Speaking Patients

The NHS just announced that it will be hiring Welsh language champions to ensure that Welsh-speaking patients have access to services in their own language, according to Wales Online.

Each health board will hire its own Welsh champion, who will work to support Welsh language officers  to make sure patients have access to the language services they need to be comfortable.  Wales Online notes that this is expected to become increasingly important over the next several years, as doctors and nurses care for more and more elderly patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia.  These patients may have spoken English fluently for decades, but they will often retain the ability to communicate in their first language for much longer than they retain their English ability.

The article quotes the Welsh in the Health Service report to explain the importance of providing patients with service in their native tongue:

“The longer any course of treatment continues and the more talking and counselling the treatment involves, the more important language choice becomes in the minds of Welsh-speaking patients. Also, the more serious the condition and more intensive the care, the more important language becomes.”

A Welsh Assembly government spokeswoman elaborated further:

“Patient safety and clinical assessment and treatment often depend upon patients being able to communicate in their own language. The quality of care and a patient’s experience of care is also greatly improved if they are able to communicate in the language they are most at ease in.”

Health care workers note that native Welsh speakers often have a slightly harder time when they receive health care services in English, no matter impeccable their English skills are. For example, a poor diagnosis is a stressful event, and the last thing people want to have to do at such a time is to switch back and forth between Welsh and English. When is English is your second language, you often need a moment to collect your thoughts and translate them, which can also be misconstrued by health care workers.

It’s no wonder, then, that the  Welsh Assembly says:

“It is extremely important that health and social care services in the NHS in Wales are available through the medium of Welsh.”

Cost of NHS Translation

The National Health Service is currently catching some flak for the costs of its interpreting and NHS translation services. As the BBC reports, a group called 2020Health made a Freedom of Information request to determine the cost of these services to the NHS, and found that last year’s bill came to over £23m.

Julia ManningSpeaking to the BBC, 2020Health CEO Julia Manning condemned the costs as excessive, saying:

“The costs involved are truly staggering in an age of austerity. Urgent action must be taken by trusts to stem the flow of translation costs. The most glaring problem is that NHS trusts translate their own material rather than have access to a central pool of translated documents.”

Most bureaucratic systems can be improved, and the NHS is no exception. The 2020Health report offers some good suggestions for cutting costs. For example, the think tank suggests that the NHS create a centralised database of translated documents, so that different trusts have access to each other’s materials and don’t need to order new translations from scratch to convey information that was already translated into the same language at another location. The group also suggests that NHS trusts use standardized procedures to break down and track where the money being spent on translation is going.

In its report, though, even 2020Health admits that translation services are necessary, saying

In order to avoid cuts to services, the NHS is currently looking to make a 20% savings through service redesign. Whilst it might be tempting to cut costs by simply reducing spend on translation services, this is not necessarily the most effective or economical solution.

Healthcare is one of those situations in which accurate translations are much more than just a nicety. Being able to communicate effectively with patients is absolutely crucial to their health and well-being. That’s why some of the recommendations in the report, while undoubtedly well-intentioned, have the potential to do more harm than good.

For example, the report recommends switching as much as possible from human translators to machine translation services like Google Translate. These tools are great for getting the gist of a document, but they often produce translations that are at best awkward and at worst misleading or incoherent. We’ve reported many times on this blog about the dangers of using Google Translate (other online translation tools are available) so we’d say its dangerous when you’re communicating about something as important as someone’s health.

The report also criticises NHS translations for “perpetuat[ing] a system in which [non-English speaking patients] are ostracised from the majority of the English-speaking public.”

Of course, newcomers should be encouraged to learn English. However, when providing medical care, the primary consideration should be getting the patient the information and the help they need, not “encouraging” them to improve their English skills by conveying information to them in a language they don’t adequately understand.