Interpreting services have faced increasing challenges in New South Wales during the Omicron wave, with patients struggling to access the service and long wait times on phone lines increasing the pressure.
Health workers and community advocates have described a system strained by the demands of the pandemic, especially when visits are limited or restricted, leaving many elderly patients in the dark.
Amy*, an interpreter from NSW Health who asked to remain anonymous, said the system had long been under strain and the pandemic had only exacerbated long-term problems.
“It was grossly underfunded,” she said. “There are simply far too many demands for the number of employees actually employed. Fifteen people do the work of 50 people.
“There are not enough interpreters hired to meet the demands and demands that arise, not because of a lack of interpreters, but because of budget issues.”
Amy said her ward operated from knockdowns attached to a hospital, with little support or appreciation for their work.
She said she had days when she had to answer 40 phone calls and the pressure on interpreters was too much.
“In fact, patients miss when you have to answer so many calls; it is extremely difficult to have a professional on the phone at the moment.
“They suffer because of it, especially if it’s an emergency and they don’t have access to language support. It can be catastrophic for them. »
Under the current system in NSW, healthcare professionals are responsible for booking an interpreter for patients, with some local health districts having emergency priority lines.
If healthcare workers cannot get an interpreter in time, circumstances mean they are forced to move on to meet the demands of the pandemic.
Sarah*, a healthcare worker who also chose to remain anonymous, said interpreting services were “completely down” under pressure from demand and absentees.
She said waits of up to an hour on the phone for interpreters were common, disrupting patients and their treatment plans.
“The interpretation services (are) based on his availability, and the way he is staffed at the moment, he is almost built to be completely inaccessible. You need to have stamina and just general patience to be able to wait for long periods of time just to reach your interpreter.
“We’ve seen patients walk into operating rooms who didn’t understand where they were going and why. And no one can talk to them, they suddenly find themselves moved.
“Sometimes family members would interpret from the car over the phone, having to deliver news through tears to their parents,” she said.
But a spokesperson for NSW Health said the local health district of Western Sydney, which covers some of the most linguistically diverse areas of NSW, was not under pressure at all.
“WSLHD Healthcare Interpreter Services provides free access to nearly 350 professional interpreters 24 hours a day, seven days a week in over 120 languages, including Auslan.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office, which runs the national translation and interpreting service, said there had been “unprecedented” demand for the service.
“The Covid pandemic has increased the number of people with access to interpreting services. Unmet demand in all languages is constantly monitored, and new interpreters are appointed to the panel to ensure supply.
But Dr Archana Voola, policy officer at the Western Sydney Migrant Resource Centre, said there was some confusion around the service. Voola said families don’t know how and when to access interpreters.
“There is confusion as to who should request the interpretation/translation service – the doctor or the patient? There are [also] lack of clarity on who should pay for this service once it is used.
A persistent problem was the time it took to access interpretation services, affecting diagnosis and instructions.
“There may not be Swahili or Farsi interpreters on call to meet immediate needs. One thing we have seen over time in Australian health services is the lack/limited use of translation services available.
“The consequences of lack of access could be misdiagnosis, possibly infecting family members and others in their orbit.”
NSW Health said it also upgraded the system in 2020 and decided to improve access to telehealth, with most interpreting sessions now taking place by telephone or videoconference.
But Costa Vasili, chief executive of Ethnolink, a translation company, said research has shown a majority of people in healthcare settings prefer face-to-face interpreting.
“The lack of visual cues limits performers’ understanding of emotional content. There may be technical issues and bandwidth limitations in some hospitals and clinics. Staff are not properly trained to deal with technical issues that may arise.
Vasili said the service had been “underappreciated” by many, and long-term underfunding led to many performers leaving the industry.
“Interpretation services are undervalued by many Australians and are chronically underfunded, leading to systemic problems in the interpreting industry such as low pay and poor working conditions.
“This is driving professional interpreters out of the industry to seek alternative careers that are less stressful and offer better pay and conditions.
“Fair and equitable access to health services in the patient’s preferred language is essential in a multicultural country like Australia.
*Names have been changed.