The National Health Service is currently catching some flak for the costs of its interpreting and 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.
Speaking 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.
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.