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Migrants’ health suffering for lack of interpreters

5 August 20160 comments

The health of migrants and refugees living in Australia’s rural and regional areas could be at risk because of a lack of interpreters for medical and mental health appointments, according to doctors’ groups.

Australian doctors are concerned poor health outcomes for migrant and refugee communities could result from a lack of interpreters in rural and regional areas.

And service providers say more awareness is needed within the medical community about the needs of patients from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Migrant healthThere are several interpreting services in Australia, including the federal government’s Translating and Interpreting Service, but many of them are concentrated in major cities.

Few of them offer face-to-face services in rural and regional areas, where people from migrant or refugee backgrounds are increasingly being encouraged to move.

Rural Doctors’ Association of Australia president Dr Ewen McPhee said this week the problem was unspoken and was likely more serious than many people realised.

“There’s probably a significant problem here that needs to be addressed, that possibly isn’t being addressed because people aren’t talking about it or they’re making do,” he said.

“It probably means the outcome for people’s health isn’t what it could be.”

Dr McPhee, who works as a general practitioner in Emerald, Queensland, said doctors found the telephone interpretation services difficult to use as they usually required bookings to be made. They can also be quite expensive.

In areas outside of major cities it was rare to have an interpreter in the room, Dr McPhee said.

“There are many communities who simply don’t go [to the doctor] because they feel the doctor doesn’t have time for them, to understand them,” he said.

Studies have shown that language barriers, and fears doctors will not understand them or be able to accommodate their language needs, leads many people from migrant or refugee backgrounds to avoid seeking medical attention.

It is one factor that contributes to poor health outcomes for people of non-English speaking backgrounds in Australia.

Acting chairwoman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) Eugenia Grammatikakis said organisation’s clients had reported reluctance and a lack of awareness among doctors and their staff about the use – and even the existence – of interpreters for medical appointments.

“They have very little knowledge about interpreter services and how to use them and this contributes to interpreters not being booked when clients front-up at medical appointments,” Ms Grammatikakis said.

“Clients are often asked to bring a family member to the appointment and this is often not the best way to manage the client-doctor communication,” she said.