Speak easy

Communication in the health sector is vital. Health professionals need to hear an account of their patient’s condition and medical history in order to make a decision about treatment. Failure to communicate effectively could, quite literally, make the difference between life and death. But with the variety of cultures living in the UK today, how do you ensure clear communication with a patient that does not have a strong grasp of the English language? Access to a high-quality translation or interpreting service is the answer.

Translation services
The main translating/interpreting services available to the health sector include face-to-face interpretation, telephone interpreting, written translation and British sign language interpretation.
Deciding whether to use a face-to-face interpreter should be judged on a case-by-case basis. As a basic rule, the more complex the communication, the greater the need for face-to-face interpreting. This also applies if the discussion is going to be long, if the patient is vulnerable or if sensitive information or bad news is going to be disclosed.

Alternative services
An alternative service is telephone interpreting where the interpreter is at the other end of the line. The call is connected like a conference call between the patient, health professional and interpreter. This should be utilised when short but important pieces of information need to be communicated immediately.
Written text that needs communicating to the patient, such as a patient record, leaflet, brochure, website content, e-mail, letter or form, will need text-to-text translation in the required language.
Alternatively, some suppliers offer text-to-speech translation. This is where a document is communicated to the patient orally or by audio in the relevant language. It can be a good option for the visually impaired or illiterate. One method is to send the document to the translation agency with the language required and the relevant telephone number. An interpreter will then call the relevant person and read the document to them in the required language.
Another service that is useful in today’s multi-cultural environment is ‘cultural understanding’. This is where minority groups give feedback on the cultural sensitivity of a document and highlight any issues that might arise due to cultural differences.
In addition to those affected by language or cultural barriers, the deaf community also have serious communication needs. British Sign Language interpreting and lipspeaking enables communication with members of the public who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Deciding factors
To ensure the quality of translation and interpreting services, and to control costs, the government established in 2006 a framework agreement for translation services in the public sector and awarded the contract to two suppliers; K International and thebigword. By utilising the frameworks, NHS trusts can benefit from cheaper rates, formalised and negotiated service level agreements, appropriate insurance cover and proven quality of delivery.
There is, however, still the flexibility to commission other organisations as a translation partner if desired. When choosing a supplier, it is important to make sure that the translation service on offer meets the specific needs of the health sector; knowing a foreign language alone is simply not enough. The meaning of a text or speech must be understood before it can be translated and if the text or speech is full of medical terms and jargon, then it is unlikely that a translator without medical knowledge and experience will be able to do a sufficient job.
Suppliers that are members of professional bodies such as the Association of Translation Companies (ATC), the Chartered Institute of Linguists (IoL) and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) have to adhere to a strict code of professional conduct and can be a good place to start your search.

A disincentive?
Last year Ruth Kelly, the then communities secretary, brought the issue of translation in the health sector to the public’s attention. The debate was over whether or not the amount of translation of official documents acted as a disincentive for immigrants to learn English. She argued that learning English was key in helping migrants to integrate but if material is routinely translated, the incentive to learn English is taken away.
The opposing view is that translation allows immigrants to gain access to services while they learn English, as becoming fluent in a language takes time. It can also help them with the transition into British society.
According to a BBC survey conducted in late 2006, it was found that the public sector spent more than £100m on translations services in the previous year. £55m of that was used by NHS Trusts. With this in mind, perhaps there is cause to look at how expenditure can be reduced in this area. This could be done, for example, by giving priority to more critical needs – such as supplying interpreting services – over not so crucial needs – such as translating ‘stop smoking’ material.
As our multi-cultural society continues to grow, so will the need for translation and interpreting in the health sector. And with accurate communication crucial to situations concerning health, it is extremely important that the translation and interpreting services available to the health sector are of the best quality and tailored to the precise needs of the medical profession.