The effects of a language barrier in a South African district hospital

Schlemmer, A. ; Mash, B. (2006-10)

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CITATION: Schlemmer, A., Mash, B. 2006. The effects of a language barrier in a South African district hospital. South African Medical Journal, 96(10):1080-1087.


Background. Communication between health workers and patients at Hottentots Holland Hospital (HHH) is hindered by staff and patients not speaking the same language. HHH is a district hospital in the Cape Town Metropolitan District of the Western Cape where staff mainly speak Afrikaans or English and a large number of patients mainly Xhosa. Objectives. The study aimed to explore the effects of this language barrier on health workers and patients at HHH. Design. Three focus group interviews were held with 21 members of staff and 5 in-depth patient interviews were conducted. Results. The language barrier was found to interfere with working efficiently, create uncertainty about the accuracy of interpretation, be enhanced by a lack of education or training, cause significant ethical dilemmas, negatively influence the attitudes of patients and staff towards each other, decrease the quality of and satisfaction with care, and cause cross-cultural misunderstandings. Conclusion. The effects of the language barrier were considerable and persistent despite an official language policy in the province. The training and employment of professional interpreters as well as teaching of basic Xhosa to staff are recommended.

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