Although the Australian Translating and Interpreting Service offers
the world’s largest free telephone health interpreter service, it
remains underused. This study explores barriers for nonmedical
practice staff to accessing telephone interpreters.
Data were collected through five focus groups of 4–8 people.
Participants were receptionists and practice nurses from the
Australian Capital Territory and rural New South Wales attending a
update on current practice issues.
One-quarter of the participants did not know about, and/or how
to use, telephone interpreters. Staff cited a range of ad hoc
communication strategies of dubious quality for non-English speaking
patients. All participants would only contact an interpreter on the
general practitioner’s direction; however few recalled any cases in
which the GP had done so.
The attitudes and leadership of nonmedical staff about the need for
interpreters may be key factors in promoting the use of interpreters
in the general practice setting. Misconceptions about telephone
interpreters abound among general practice staff. They defer
decisions about interpreter access to GPs, posing the risk that access
decisions become no-one’s business. A whole of system approach
to increasing uptake of interpreters is required, including education
of medical and nonmedical staff, incentives through Medicare, and
more explicit accreditation standards.
One in 6 Australians speaks a language other than English at home.1 Seventeen percent of this group cannot speak English proficiently.2 Australia is the only Anglophone country to provide national free telephone interpreter services to doctors. The Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS), established by the then Department of Immigration to meet the needs of postwar migrants,3 now provides 24 hour translating and interpreting services 7 days a week in more than 120 languages. The service can provide telephone or onsite interpreters. In 2000, TIS introduced the Doctors' Priority Line (DPL) to provide access to interpreters for medical consultations within 3 minutes. The DPL aimed to promote uptake of telephone interpreters over more costly onsite interpreters,3 and use of interpreters in emergencies and in rural areas. Although there has been an increase in telephone interpreter use by doctors, the DPL appears still to be underused. Annual telephone interpreter use by doctors has risen from 2814 (or eight per day) in 1999, to 20 382 (or 57 per day) in 2007 (Figure 1). Of the 57 calls per day in 2007, only 25 were made to the DPL for rapid access.
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