Graham Turner: Language must not be a barrier to care

In recent debates about public spending, one of the few "untouchable" sectors seems to have been the National Health Service. Survey after survey has shown – particularly in Scotland – that spending on the NHS is a priority. We have a unified, national service so that nobody misses out on the best healthcare taxes can afford.

But one part of the community does miss out. If you don't speak English, the quality of your treatment is likely to suffer. In a medical setting, language barriers are not an amusing feature of "living la vida loca" in a globalised Scotland: they're a potentially deadly hazard.

In this mobile world, more and more patients cannot speak English. Yet effective communication is vital to the provision of quality care. Fortunately, interpreters can assist. Unfortunately, they are not always professionally trained. Does this matter – they just need to speak both languages, right? Wrong.

An interpreter is required to make finely-weighted judgments about meaning and cultural significance. Doing so against the clock adds greater intensity to the task. Set all of this against the fact that someone's life may depend upon the interpreter's words, and you'll see why this is not a job for everyone.

It is also not a job for a machine. Computer programmess may offer language support on the desktop, but asking only "yes/no" questions would be considered appallingly inadequate communication in any other medical setting, so why should it be thought adequate for these patients?

You may protest that surely some consultations are routine and don't need special provision. But how often do complex, life-threatening conditions start out with apparently trivial symptoms – coughs and headaches that turn out to indicate pneumonia or brain injury?

Good quality interpreting throughout the public services benefits us all. Doctors make informed diagnoses. Patients get better. And no-one gets sued. When corners are cut, everyone is vulnerable. If it were your child being rushed into A&E, would you take the risk?

• Professor Graham Turner is chair of translation studies at Heriot-Watt University

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