Australia is one of the most multilingual countries in the world, but also one of the most monolingual. Four out of 5 Australians speak only English; but among the 20% who speak another language, 400 languages are spoken.1 Although Australia has many bilingual doctors, nearly 80% of consultations are conducted in English, and only 3% of general practitioners conduct more than half their consultations in a language other than English.2 The diversity of languages exceeds the capacity of any doctor to communicate with all patients using his or her own language skills.
Australia is one of the most multilingual countries in
the world. In their working lives, all doctors will need to
communicate with patients whose languages they do not
To outline Australia’s system for providing interpreters
for medical consultations, and to discuss optimal ways of
working with these interpreters.
Australia has the world’s largest free telephone interpreter
service for doctors. All general practitioners claiming
Medicare consultations can contact this service, quote a
doctor code or Medicare provider number, and generally
receive an interpreter within 3 minutes. Onsite interpreters
can be booked if required. State and territory health
services can also provide onsite and telephone interpreters.
Despite this, interpreters are underused in Australia.
Practices can improve their uptake of interpreters by
establishing routine systems to contact interpreters when
needed; however nation wide measures are also needed,
including education and providing incentives through the
Medicare fee structure. Decisions about when to contact
an interpreter will be determined by patient or doctor
request, the nature of the illness, and/or the subject of the
consultation. The quality of interpreted consultations can
be improved if the GP speaks slowly and speaks to the
patient, not the interpreter; allows time for the interpreter
to interpret the elements of the consultation to the patient;
and remains in charge of the consultation. Information in
many languages is now widely available on the internet,
and can be a useful supplement to the interpreted
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