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Migrants urged not to use relatives as interpreters in hospital

Shahad Abboud was trying to reach Australia with her mother, sister and two brothers when the boat they were travelling on was intercepted and taken to Indonesia.

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The family was placed in a detention centre in the capital, Jakarta, for eight months until they were released to live in the capital.

They applied for refugee status in Australia, hoping to be reunited with their father and other siblings, who were also trying to make it to Australia. Almost five years later, they were allowed to relocate to Australia and the family was together again.

Shahad’s father required major surgery but the hospital was an intimidating place.

“Imagine yourself going to a country where you only know ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ and then coming to a hospital not knowing a single thing and not being able to tell them what was your history,” she said.

To ease the pressure, they asked the hospital to provide an Arabic interpreter.

“He explained all the medical details, and every medical question and terminologies, which I thought was really great otherwise we wouldn’t know what we were heading for,” she said.

Medical professionals are now urging people who don’t speak English to do the same, saying too many people are relying on family members to translate. 

Dr Mitchell Smith, of the New South Wales Refugee Health Service, said that can be dangerous.

“There are cases, including some that have gone as far as court, that demonstrate that if a friend or relative is used, the accuracy of the interpreting is not as good,” he said.

At the start of NSW Multicultural Health Week on Monday, a new DVD was launched to raise awareness of the issue.

It identified the biggest risks:

Inaccurate interpretationPoor knowledge of medical termsWithholding or distorting messagesBreach of patient confidentialityIncomplete medical history and;Invalid consent to surgery or treatmentTranslating medical terms

New South Wales is currently the only state that has a government-run interpreter service specifically for healthcare.

Other states rely on private contractors for interpreting in hospitals, meaning they are not regulated under one government agency.

But NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner told SBS that could change.

“I understand Victoria has been reviewing how these things can be done,” she said. “They are very interested in what we do here in New South Wales and I’m very happy for our wonderful services to be collaborating not only with Victoria but with all the other states.”

“There are cases, including some that have gone as far as court, to demonstrate that if a friend or relative is used, the accuracy of the interpreting is not as good.”

Katina Varelis, director of Health language Services at South Western Sydney Local Health District, said the service provided for a large number of communities.

“We have the capacity to provide interpreter services in over 120 languages at the moment. That includes services provided by both our staff interpreters and we have some contract interpreters for some of the smaller, emerging languages,” she said.

The language groups people most often need interpreters for are Arabic, Chinese and Vietnamese. The service also offers sign language. 

Ms Varelis said their interpreters received specialised training in medical translation but even for them it can be challenging.

“Interpreters are human beings like the rest of us, so they do end up in situations that are very difficult or challenging in terms of the news they need to deliver,” she said.

Growing demand

According to the 2011 Census, there are more than three million people in Australia who speak a language other than English, meaning medical interpreters are more important than ever.

Ms Varelis said it wasn’t just new migrants that required assistance.

“We have the capacity to provide interpreter services in over 120 languages at the moment.”

“It could be people who have been here for a very long time but they’re older, people who may not have had the opportunity to learn English or have lost their English due to a variety of different chronic diseases,” she said.

Shahad Abboud said taking away communication barriers puts people at ease in situations that can already be stressful.

“People can find it easier, ask any question they like and they can feel somewhat as if it’s home and they are able to say whatever they want,” she said.

And it made all the difference for Shahad’s family when her father had his second operation, which – thankfully – was a success.

“Thank God, it was good,” Sahad said.

“He’s still here, healthy, with better health, which is great.”

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