Louise McVicker

Lost in translation: accommodating diversity and language in the NHS

The NHS isn’t just one of our biggest public sector employers – it’s one of the most diverse. This blog explores the importance of accommodating this diversity. 


Of around 1.6 million staff across the UK, no less than 11% are officially recognised as originating from outside Britain according to data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). Within specific disciplines – such as qualified doctors and nursing – the numbers are even higher. It’s a profile that’s prompted the British Medical Association (BMA) to observe that without the contribution of non-British staff, "many NHS services would struggle to provide effective care to their patients".

The NHS is hugely dependent on recruiting staff from overseas. 2014 figures indicated that 73% of UK hospital trusts recruited staff from abroad, compared with 38% the year previously.

It’s clear that individuals from overseas make a huge contribution to the successful functioning of our health service in all roles, from doctors and nurses to carers, porters and ancillary staff.

Almost without exception, there’s a significant literacy component to employees’ day-to-day responsibilities – whether it’s communicating with patients by email, researching important clinical information online or simply filling in forms.

Doctors and nurses joining the NHS from overseas are now subjected to stringent language skills tests. But for other roles such as administrative staff, there’s little or no objective assessment of their literacy skills. 

Not having English as a first language can be a real challenge for many NHS employees coming to the UK from over 200 different countries. And for obvious reasons – not least in the interests of better patient care, safety and lower operational costs – it’s vital that we give them support when they need it. 

Back in 2012, it was reported that our health service spent £23m on translators and interpreters… that’s over £60,000 every day. With some NHS trusts regularly translating material into 120 languages, it’s a major drain on stretched resources that could arguably be better spent on patient care.

Isn’t there a better solution? Couldn’t much of the money that’s committed to costly translation services be redirected to ‘self-service’ assistive technology solutions that help NHS staff – and patients – for whom English isn’t their first language?

In an environment where ‘lost in translation’ could potentially have very serious outcomes, offering support solutions is vital. It’s time for the NHS to look closely at the role assistive technology can play in providing this support in an effective and more cost-efficient manner than current practices. 




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