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Interpreter use in general practice - Information for GPs

Background

Last revised: 02 Aug 2023

Background

Culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) patients often have higher rates of disease and experience poorer health outcomes than the rest of the population. These communities have also been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and general practitioners (GPs) have raised concerns that patients may be delaying appointments amid fears of contracting the virus.1

Boosting the uptake and use of interpreters in general practice is increasingly important to reduce health inequality in vulnerable communities and Australia becomes more culturally diverse

Patients have a right to understand the information and recommendations they receive from their practitioners. Practitioners have a professional obligation to communicate effectively and to understand their patients’ health concerns.2

Research suggests that interpreters are underutilised in the primary care setting due a number of disincentives and barriers. These include financial concerns, the time-intensive nature of consultations involving interpreters, coordinating consent and the resources required to create an interpreter-friendly practice environment (eg extra training for practice staff). These barriers have fuelled perceptions around the inconvenience of engaging and working with interpreters.3

Greater use of interpreters can result in more effective healthcare provision, improved communication between clinicians and patients, better comprehension by patients of medical instructions, imposing unreasonable responsibility on a family member or friend to interpret for them, and mitigation of medico-legal risks around duty of care.3

RACGP Standards

Criterion C1.4 in the Standards for general practices (5th edition) (the Standards) outlines requirements for accredited general practices with regard to interpreter and other communication services.

Indicators

C1.4►A Our practice endeavours to use an interpreter with patients who do not speak the primary language of our practice team.
C1.4►B Our practice endeavours to employ communication strategies to engage with patients who have difficulty accessing the service due to a communication impairment.
C1.4 C Our patients can access resources that are culturally appropriate, translated, and/or in plain English.

More information is available at this location in the Standards.

Other areas of the Standards where practices are asked to consider the needs of their CALD patients are listed below.

RACGP advocacy

Medicare rebates do not adequately support patients and GPs for the additional time needed when an interpreter is required  during a consultation, as well as the accompanying administrative work.4The RACGP supports increased Medicare rebates that reflect the true cost of high-quality service provision and to reduce out-of-pocket costs for patients.

As part of the 2023-24 Federal Budget the government announced funding for a range of measures the RACGP advocated for in its pre-budget submission, including a tripling of bulk billing incentives, a new Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) item for Level E (60-minute plus) consultations and funding for longer telephone appointments (>20 minutes). The RACGP will be monitoring the implementation of this funding to ensure it enables general practices to provide increased and higher quality services to CALD patients.

  1. Tsirtsakis A. Fears CALD patients avoiding healthcare during pandemic. newsGP, 3 August 2020
  2. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. Standards for general practices. 5th edn. East Melbourne, Vic: RACGP, 2022.
  3. Migrant and Refugee Health Partnership. Interpreter engagement in general practice in Australia. Canberra: Migrant and Refugee Health Partnership, 2020.
  4. Saito S, Harris MF, Long KM, et al. Response to language barriers with patients from refugee background in general practice in Australia: findings from the OPTIMISE study. BMC Health Serv Res 2021;21,921.

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