Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Language Barrier and its Implications

Whilst waiting for an MRI scan in a top central London hospital , I observed two very thought-provoking incidents. As a patient, I have often found communication difficult with my doctors - despite speaking English as a first language and having a good understanding of medical terminology - but I saw a new level of communication challenges.

The first incident was when a patient could not speak English, so had brought her daughter along. The radiographer was asking the daughter, as a translator, the standard questions before the scan about implants and operations. When asking about kidney function, the daughter did not understand the word 'kidney'. I was called for my scan, so do not know what happened. For a scan where the possibility of metal implants could pose a serious health risk, such important preliminary screening questions can not afford to be lost in translation. For such a central London hospital, one would expect a large proportion of patients to not have English as their first language - the cost and trouble of printing the standard questions in other languages must surely be considerably less than the cost and trouble of 'ferro-magnetic accidents' when patients enter the scanner with implants. One other simple solution could be to have a poster of the human body annotated with the heart, brain, eyes, spine and kidneys - the organs mentioned in the questionnaire - which staff can use when trying to explain the questions to patients.

The second incident involved the same issues. This time a man who could not speak English became distressed by the noise of the scanner (they are very loud!) - so much so that the scan was not able to be completed. In previous scans, I have had a parent in the scanning room with me - surely this should be offered to patients who rely on someone else to communicate with the English-speaking technicians? Not being able to complete the scan will have implications for the patients' subsequent diagnosis and care, and also presents a financial concern for the time of the staff and scanner.

With headlines in 2011 suggesting the NHS spent millions and millions on translation, it is difficult to understand why incidents like this still happen in hospitals in some of the most multi-cultural areas of the country!

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