Remote interpreting services are essential for people with limited English — during COVID-19 and beyond
Interpreters are a critical part of health care for people with limited English. The shift to remote interpreting during COVID-19 could ensure more Australians who need these services can access them.
According to 2016 Census data, 3.5% of Australians have limited English proficiency.
When they’re receiving health care, it’s essential these Australians have access to interpreters. Research has shown professional interpreters facilitate effective communication between the patient and clinician, boost the quality of care, and improve the patient’s health outcomes.
With COVID-19, we’ve seen a shift towards interpreting services being delivered remotely.
These remote services are important for vulnerable groups during the pandemic. They should also pave the way for improved care for people with limited English in the future.
Certain groups of people are at increased risk of serious illness from COVID-19. These include people aged 70 and over (or 65 and over with a chronic medical condition), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 50 and over with a chronic condition, and people with compromised immune systems.
Vulnerability to COVID-19 can also relate to factors like homelessness or insecure housing and socioeconomic status.
Many people with limited English proficiency will fit into these vulnerable groups.
People with limited English may also be at increased risk of COVID-19 because they don’t have the language and literacy skills to understand and respond to pandemic-related information.
While data on language and COVID-19 cases is regrettably lacking in Australia, evidence from overseas suggests people from non-English-speaking backgrounds may be faring worse.
In the United States, for example, communities with large numbers of people with limited English account for a high percentage of COVID-19 hospitalisations and deaths, disproportionate to the general population.
So as well as providing suitable health messaging to multilingual communities, providing interpreting services is vitally important at this time.
We don’t know how often interpreters are used in aged care, but there’s clearly a need there too.
COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to improve the use of interpreters in these areas.
A shift to remote delivery
Before the pandemic, professional interpreting services in health care were delivered through a combination of face-to-face and remote services (via telephone or video conferencing).
In Australia, these services are made available through a range of private and government-funded services. For example, in New South Wales there are five health-care interpreting services. Nationally, the Department of Home Affairs funds the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS), which offers free interpreting for eligible health organisations and clinicians.
There are no data from before COVID-19 to tell us what proportion of interpreting services were delivered face-to-face, rather than remotely. But during the pandemic, consistent with the sharp increase in telehealth, we’ve seen a sudden shift to remote delivery of interpreting services across Australia.
At the Royal Melbourne Hospital for example, video interpreting appointments have increased from 10-15 appointments per month before COVID-19 to 100-200 a month currently.
Importantly, it allows for continued access to services in a COVID-safe way (minimising physical contact between interpreters, health-care professionals and consumers).
Other benefits include rapid and increased access to interpreters in a wide range of languages, and improved efficiency. It allows interpreters to spend more time interpreting rather than commuting between sites.
But there are also some potential disadvantages. There’s the absence of visual communication, especially associated with telephone interpreting. A person might offer cues via their body language, but a telephone consultation will miss these.
Drawbacks could also include technical problems such as poor video or audio quality, and issues related to digital literacy and participation more broadly, particularly for older Australians.