language barriers
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Tomoaki Kojima, CEO of Sourcenext Europe, explains how UK healthcare providers can overcome language barriers to help improve clinical outcomes for patients who don’t speak English as their first language

NHS trusts and other healthcare providers face a growing challenge to meet the changing communication needs of the UK’s increasingly diverse population. Around one in ten people in the UK don’t speak English as their first language,  and in areas like London, this figure is around one in five people. This trend is set to continue as data from the ONS shows that over the next 25 years net international migration will account for almost three-quarters of UK population growth.

Language barriers can prevent patients from engaging in conversations with their clinicians – so how can healthcare providers deliver a quality care service to someone, if they can’t understand what their clinician is telling them?

Healthcare communication barriers

Numerous studies conducted over the past thirty years show that a clinician’s ability to explain, listen and empathise can have a huge impact on patient health outcomes as well as patient satisfaction.

Language barriers can result in miscommunication that impacts a patient’s understanding of their condition or treatment – this can be potentially life-changing or even life-threatening. This is why it’s crucial for all UK healthcare providers to now think carefully about how they can remove language barriers, to help patients who don’t speak English as their first language.

The growing number of patients with limited English proficiency is concentrated around large urban areas, which means the need for language support is already acute in large cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester. Whilst healthcare providers can use interpreters, they must rely on the availability of one when needed, and ensure consistent quality of translation to build and maintain trust and understanding.

Cultural beliefs also need to be considered, and clinicians may often see patients relying on their family members and friends to act as interpreters. This can, however, present a number of problems. Those asked to step in as impromptu interpreters may lack appropriate language skills, knowledge of medical terminology, or fail to translate complex information correctly. Their actions could also present serious issues around patient confidentiality.

Improving patient outcomes

For clinicians whose time is already scarce due to growing pressures on health organisations across the UK, relying on interpreters also requires spending time organising and overseeing the process.

Here’s where the right technology can make a huge difference. Whilst many healthcare providers already use over-the-phone translation services to get help from an interpreter, additional access to tools such as translation devices or apps is priceless.

For example, Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust is one of the UK healthcare providers using Pocketalk real-time language translation devices, to overcome language barriers during the Covid-19 pandemic. The trust received three free devices donated by Pocketalk to UK healthcare providers during the early stage of the pandemic to offer clinicians quick and accurate help to speak with patients.

Having clinicians who are bilingual is also increasingly helpful for healthcare providers hiring more bilingual staff. Not only can they help translate important information to patients, but they can also help their organisation communicate in a way that takes cultural differences into account.

Other ways of overcoming communication barriers include encouraging clinicians to be more visual and make full use of visual prompts. Patients are more likely to remember and understand information much better with clear visual prompts like diagrams, images and models.

Ultimately, healthcare providers must use a combination of the right people and translation technology to remove communication barriers and improve clinical outcomes for patients who don’t speak English as their first language.


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