Language barriers faced by Reading people feature in national campaign for change

A national body is using our research to lobby for a new legal duty on the NHS to better support patients with little or no English.
Photo of hospital staff talking to male patient

Reading people with little or no English have shared their communication struggles with the NHS, in research we carried out for a national campaign to change the law.

People from Africa, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan and Syria – some of whom are asylum seekers or refugees – told us of their experiences. We also interviewed NHS clinicians and admin staff working in Reading about how the system for arranging interpreters for patients could be improved.

Thanks to our evidence – and research by five other local Healthwatch – our national body Healthwatch England is now pressing for improvements. These would be timely, with the arrival of people from Ukraine, as well as overdue for people already living here after fleeing other war-torn countries.

The impact of language barriers

Reading people who speak little or no English, told us:

“A little while ago I was having chest pains so I called my [English speaking] friend and she called my GP, who sent for an ambulance. The [A&E] doctor who saw me spoke a few words [of my language], so we managed….I could point to where it was hurting.”

“I received a letter a few years ago which said I had low iron and Vitamin D but I didn’t act on it because I wasn’t sure what [it said] to do and I didn’t have anyone to show the letter to.”

“The GP surgery phoned an elderly gentleman in our community [who doesn’t speak English] and just old him ‘attend South Street for your Covid booster’. He phoned me and I had to ask my son to look on the internet to find the full address. We had to do a lot of searching and then I brought the man and his wife because I didn’t want them to miss their vaccination.”

“Sometimes in front of your child [who often interprets at health appointments] you don’t say too much detail but in front of a professional [interpreter], open up all the way.”

“Sometimes I feel like I am agreeing to [dental] treatments and I am not sure what I am agreeing to.”

“By the time I have explained my issue [via the interpreter], the GP starts telling me the [appointment] time is over.”

“I was telling my health problem to the interpreter and they told me to talk quickly so that they could get to another patient. They had been booked to help 2 or 3 patients at the same time.”

In its report Lost for Words, made public on 23 March 2022Healthwatch England calls for the NHS to face a new legal duty on arranging interpreters for people who speak little or no English.

At the moment, the NHS faces an ‘Accessible Information’ legal duty, but this currently only applies to people who have hearing or sight impairments or learning disabilities. Despite this, other research shows these groups of people also still face challenges in communicating with the NHS.

Go to the Healthwatch England report

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