How a lack of translators is harming patients in Wales, according to Senedd report

  • Video report by ITV Wales' Health Reporter, Katie Fenton

A mother and daughter from Ukraine have described how "scary" language barriers in healthcare in Wales can be.

Olga Bakar and her mother Vira have lived in Wales UK for less than 2 years after leaving Ukraine due to the war.

Last year, Vira needed a triple heart bypass and whilst she doesn't speak English, thankfully her daughter Olga does and was able to help translate while Vira was in hospital.

"Sometimes she wasn't able to explain what she needs," said Olga.

"Sometimes if they brought her a menu, she wouldn't be able to use it, she wouldn't be able to select something because she simply didn't know what to say.

Vira said she "couldn't imagine how difficult it is for people who aren't able to talk."

"It was so scary because if my mum was not able to communicate with someone, even for a very minor issue, she'd call my phone. I had 17 calls in one hour, so to see so many calls was so scary."

Olga recalled one moment where her mother was trying to ask for an oxygen mask as she was struggling to breath "but the nurses thought she was feeling scratchy so they took her for a wash and she was really mad because she wasn't able to express herself."

There was also another occasion where "she (Vira) went to the GP to see if she had a reaction on her arms from a medication she was taking but the doctor thought it was some sort of bacterial infection, so he prescribed anti-bacterial ointment."

She said she felt like her mother "wasn't helpless because she had me and my son (her grandson). We tried to replace each other and provide her with the best support we can.

"We split our duties and we try to monitor my mum. We tried to make it as smooth as possible with our limited language capacities. We tried to read about her cardiac problems."

Vira added: "It's (NHS) such a good service, it's got such a good level of healthcare, but she couldn't imagine how difficult it is for people who aren't able to talk.

It comes as a Senedd report recommends translators are provided to patients to help avoid health conditions being missed.

The report by the Equality and Social Justice Committee said mistakes and misdiagnoses often occurred due to the "wholly inappropriate use of family members as interpreters in medical settings rather than trained professionals" and failing to provide adequate interpretation in a medical situation was a "potential breach of their human rights".

The committee said it is "concerned" by evidence that people from ethnic minority backgrounds continue to face worse outcomes from public sector services in Wales.

Dr Shanti Karupiah told the Committee of the real-world impact of language barriers.

Dr Shanti Karupiah, Swansea GP and Vice Chair Policy and Public Affairs, Royal College of GPs, told the Committee of the real-world impact of language barriers: “If you can’t speak the same language, it’s hard to get appropriate care. If a misdiagnosis is made, it can be the difference between life and death.

“I saw one middle-aged woman who had been coming to the practice with recurrent urinary tract infections. She came in with a relative, who was keen to translate for us.

“I suspected something wasn’t getting across so I suggested a perineal examination. That revealed that she had cervical cancer and when I referred her as USC (urgent suspected cancer) it came back as stage 4.

“That’s one example of something that, with better translation support, we could have possibly picked up earlier. Because of the communication issue, it was missed.”

She added: "Language barriers have a real life impact on that individual. It's hard when you don't speak the common language. If English or Welsh isn't your first language, or not even your second language, patients struggle to be heard.

"It can be quite confusing and scary in the surrounding environment, in a medical setting because they're not sure how they're going to put across their concerns.

"We come across many times people who require extra support in terms of language and needing a professional translator and then you end up picking up things that can be quite worrying because it wasn't picked up earlier."

Jenny Rathbone MS, Chair of the Equality and Social Justice Committee said it shows there is more to be done before Wales can become an anti-racist nation.

“The Welsh Government must recognise that failing to provide adequate interpretation to individuals with incomplete command of either English or Welsh in a medical situation is a potential breach of their human rights.

“The Welsh Government has set itself the aim of an anti-racist Wales by 2030, a mere six years hence. That requires us to be active, not passive. To resist, rather than resign ourselves to racial discrimination. And to recognise that it is time for action, not words.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We welcome the Committee’s report and will carefully consider their recommendations.

"We are committed to driving forward our Anti-racist Wales Action Plan and working towards achieving an anti-racist Wales by 2030. We recognise the importance of reducing instances where family members are acting as interpreters.

"The Wales Interpretation and Translation Service already provides professional interpreters and translators for the public sector and we are working with Public Health Wales to explore the feasibility of a directory of interpreters.”

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