Australian Family Physician
Australian Family Physician


Volume 39, Issue 4, April 2010

Using interpreters A guide for GPs

Christine Phillips
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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 speak.
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 consultation.

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