Importance of language in healthcare

Helen Birtwhistle

Helen Birtwhistle, Director of the Welsh NHS Confederation discusses the importance of language in meeting patient care needs with dignity and respect.

As Wales celebrates its unique traditions and culture this week at the National Eisteddfod we are reminded that we are a bilingual nation, and that we can be proud of our Welsh language heritage.
Language is a vital part of Wales’ vibrant culture and identity. It is also of huge importance in the way we seek and receive our public services.

Language, whether it be Welsh, English or another tongue, can be particularly important in healthcare; we are often asking people for very personal information about themselves, and in many instances the person may feel vulnerable.  Providing services to patients and service users that acknowledge their language needs is central to meeting their care requirements with respect and dignity.  

There is an on-going inquiry by the Welsh Language Commissioner into patients’ experiences relating to use of the Welsh language in primary care – at the GP surgery, dentist, pharmacy and the opticians. The NHS in Wales welcomes this work and is keen to support and contribute, especially as we are advocating a shift in health services from hospitals to local communities.  The report, expected in Summer 2014, will make recommendations designed to improve people’s experiences and identify opportunities for action.

NHS Wales has already made some advances in addressing patient needs around language. In addition, ‘More than just words’ is a Welsh Government commitment to strengthen Welsh language services in health, social services and social care.

It has pinpointed four priority groups where Welsh language services are especially important. These are children, older people, people with learning disabilities and people with mental health problems. These individuals are particularly vulnerable because their care and treatment may suffer when they are not communicated with in their own language.

Many older people in residential care settings discover that their sense of self
reduces. It’s essential therefore to provide care that reflects a person’s language and cultural background in order to respect their identity and maintain their dignity.

Older people whose first language is Welsh who suffer from dementia or have had a stroke may lose their second language and so a Welsh language service is an integral part of their assessment and subsequent treatment

Additionally, in some areas of Wales many toddlers only speak Welsh, and so providing services through the medium of English only is inappropriate for them particularly for making effective and accurate assessments.

The Welsh Language in Healthcare Awards aim to improve bilingual provision in healthcare.  The theme for this year's ceremony in July was "Words into Action" – putting the commitment made by the ‘More than just Words’ strategy into action. There were many great initiatives recognised and shared.

For example, Hywel Dda Health Board uses its rostering system to show an icon against  the name of any staff member who speaks Welsh.

The orthopedic team at Prince Philip Hospital, Llanelli, speak to their patients in their preferred language so that they fully understand the implications of surgery. Bilingual professional wall posters, booklets and bilingual targets are also displayed on bedside lockers to provide information for the patient that covers all aspects of their care.

Staff are also encouraged to learn and improve their Welsh language skills. And two particular learners were acknowledged at the awards.

Dr Chris Goodman, originally from Scotland, is a doctor at Wrexham Maelor Hospital and has been learning Welsh. He is keen to speak to patients, friends and colleagues who are more comfortable speaking in their first language. He now feels confident speaking to everyone in Welsh and uses the motto "Start every conversation in Welsh" to encourage others.

Similarly Gemma Neale, a Paramedic with the Welsh Ambulance Trust Services in Bangor, is originally from Shrewsbury and has been learning Welsh for about three years. Gemma has been learning through the website '' and has progressed through communicating with friends, patients and staff at work.
The 2011 census recorded 562,000 Welsh speakers in Wales and this is expected to rise by 2031. They will expect to interact with various healthcare providers at many points in their lives and it is our intention to provide them with high quality care. For many of them their confidence and experiences will be improved through being able to use the Welsh language

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