The money spent on translation and interpreting services by Northern Ireland’s healthcare sector has been labelled well spent.

According to the Belfast Telegraph, £5 million has been spent on providing interpreting and translation services for the country’s hospitals and surgeries over the past three years. A doctor at one surgery said this was helping a “very vulnerable group of people”.

Among the most common languages for English to be translated or interpreted into through the investment are Polish, Portuguese and Lithuanian. In total, those who do not speak English as their mother tongue have 36 languages they can choose from when visiting one of Northern Ireland’s healthcare institutions.

However, Social Democratic and Labour Party politician John Dallat said the money being spent needed “urgent reassessment” and called the figures “alarming”. He suggested looking for volunteers who could provide interpreting or translation services free of charge.

Professionals versus volunteers

As you know, Transcription Global explored the value of interpreters in hospitals earlier this week. We agreed with Andrea Johnson, a certified medical interpreter for Indiana University Health Arnett, who told the Journal and Courier that having an interpreter communicate with them in their mother tongue is like “heaven has opened its doors” for many patients. We also agreed with her when she said that it is not possible to rely on the patient having a bilingual friend or relative to interpret for them, as they may not feel comfortable doing this.

The thing is, a professional interpreter is not a doctor so they will not add anything to what the physician has said but simply relay their message. There will be no misconstruing the doctor’s words through emotion, as could be the case with a relative.

Having said that, a professional medical interpreter will also have the knowledge necessary for translating difficult medical terminology correctly, which an inexperienced volunteer is unlikely to have. As Ms Johnson says: “People notice a difference between a trained interpreter and a bilingual person.”

It’s vital to remember that the matter of a person’s health and wellbeing is frequently at stake when they go to hospital. An inexperienced and non-professional interpreter may struggle with the technical language or not convey something correctly, which could lead to the patient failing to take the correct dose of medication or return to a follow-up appointment.

Responding to Mr Dallat’s comments, a spokesperson for the Belfast Health Trust said the organisation had a statutory duty to ensure people had equal access to language services should they require them.

Transcription Global certainly agrees that hiring interpreters and translators to work at hospitals should be seen as money well spent. There’s a price to pay for quality, but by cutting corners the price hospitals pay could be their patients’ health.

What do you think?