Does the NHS have to provide an interpreter?

Do you know about your rights to language support in NHS settings?
Two people looking at a folder outside hospital

High-quality translation and interpretation are vital to ensuring that people access the health and care services they are entitled to and understand their treatment.

But did you know that healthcare providers must provide patients with translation and interpretation services?  

Do you have a right to an interpreter?  

It is your right to have a professional interpreter help you at every stage of your healthcare journey. It is the responsibility of your healthcare provider to arrange an interpreter for you.  

The NHS has a legal responsibility to make sure that the services they provide are equally accessible to all sections of the community. Guidance to services also makes clear that a professional interpreter should always be offered where language is an issue in discussing health matters. 

What should I expect?  

You have a right to expect that the NHS provides timely interpretation support. Additional time should be provided at appointments when an interpreter is required.  

Your healthcare worker should also record in your healthcare record:  

  • your preferred spoken language (including dialect)  
  • your preferred written language   
  • whether you require an interpreter.  

This information should be passed on when you get a referral to other health or social care services.  

You should never have to pay for language interpretation services.  

Can I provide my own interpreter?  

You might think that it’s easier to ask a friend or family member to help translate or interpret important information. Sometimes this may seem like the simplest, most straightforward solution.  

But this brings up a range of risks and issues, and it is safer to use interpreters provided by NHS services. Even a person with excellent English skills may not be able to understand health-related information very well. This can create gaps in the information shared and increase the likelihood of something going wrong along the patient's healthcare journey.  

Children should not be used to interpret or translate health and care information.   

NHS guidance states that professional interpreting services should always be provided. 

Using professional interpreters also benefits the NHS 

There are many benefits of using professional interpreters, including:   

  • ensuring accuracy and impartiality of interpreting  
  • minimising legal risk of misinterpretation of crucial clinical information (for example, informed consent to undergo clinical treatments and procedures)  
  • minimising safeguarding risk (for example, for victims of human trafficking)  
  • allowing family members and friends to attend appointments and support the patient (emotionally and with decision-making) without the added pressure of needing to interpret  
  • fostering trust with the patient.  

Should health information be translated for me? 

Healthcare providers should provide you with written information about health and care services (such as leaflets) in a language and format that you understand. When translated information isn’t available in your preferred language, it should be provided free.  

High-quality translations provided by a trained translator should be available. Online tools, such as Google Translate, should not be relied on for translation in healthcare settings, as they may result in inaccurate or misleading communications between staff and service users.  

Further support  

Sources of existing translated health-related information include: 

  • NHS.UKNHS Inform and NHS Heron provide a series of health information translated into other languages 

  • Doctors of the World has produced translated health related information 

  • While using visual aids should not replace the need for professional interpreting and translation, various tools have been developed to facilitate communication with people whose first language is not English: 

  • The British Red Cross and NHS Emergency Multilingual Phrasebook is available in many languages.

  • Picture Communication Tool 

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