Culture and diversity

April 2010


Using interpreters

A guide for GPs

Volume 39, No.4, April 2010 Pages 188-195

Christine Phillips


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.

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.

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