Sexual Health

June 2009


Telephone interpreters in general practice

Bridging the barriers to their use

Volume 38, No.6, June 2009 Pages 443-446

Yu-Ting Huang

Christine Phillips


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.

Download the PDF for the full article.


Yes     No

Declaration of competing interests *

Yes No

Additional Author (remove)

Yes No






Competing Interests: 

Your comment is being submitted, please wait


Download citation in RIS format (EndNote, Zotero, RefMan, RefWorks)

Download citation in BIBTEX format (RefMan)

Download citation in REFER format (EndNote, Zotero, RefMan, RefWorks)

For more information see Wikipedia: Comparison of reference management software