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Life or death medical mistakes happen due to bad translation – Senedd report

15 Mar 2024 3 minute read
An NHS hospital ward. Picture by Peter Byrne / PA Wire

Language barriers in healthcare can cause serious medical harm, according to a Senedd report.

The Equality and Social Justice Committee says it is concerned by evidence that people from ethnic minority backgrounds continue to face worse outcomes from public sector services in Wales.

In one example, the Committee heard that a woman had missed the chance of an early cancer diagnosis due to relying on relatives without medical training to interpret for them.

The Committee is calling on the Welsh Government to end the reliance on family members for translation as a matter of urgency, as part of the Anti-Racist Wales Action Plan.

Communication issues

Dr Shanti Karupiah, 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.”

Anti-racist nation

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

“It was worrying to hear evidence regarding mistakes and misdiagnoses that can result from inadequate language interpretation. These can stem from the wholly inappropriate use of family members as interpreters in medical settings, rather than trained professionals,” she said.

“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.

“Our report shows that healthcare is not the only public service where people from ethnic minority backgrounds are getting a worse service in Wales – issues in education and criminal justice also need to be addressed.

“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.”


The report, Action, not words: towards an anti-racist Wales by 2030, makes 10 recommendations to the Welsh Government to improve the Anti-Racist Wales Action Plan. That includes strengthening efforts to eliminate the use of family members as interpreters in medical settings.

It calls for Welsh Government to work with the health and social care sector to provide a safe way to report racist behaviour; and take steps to improve awareness of the anti-racist Wales agenda in schools with a nationwide teacher training day.

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