Language support: Challenges and benefits for users and providers of health and social care services

Author(s): Beverley Costa;  

Corporate author: Mothertongue

Briefing series: Better Health Briefing Paper 26

Publisher: Race Equality Foundation

Publication date: February 2013


     Language support: Challenges and benefits for users and providers of health and social care services
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Evidence on the significance of communication in the effective provision of health care suggests that language can be a significant barrier to accessing health and social care services.   This briefing paper identifies and discusses different approaches to language support in health and social care, by comparing the use of professional and volunteer interpreters.  The author identifies key implications for policy and practice from both a patient and a provider perspective, and offers an understanding of how interpreting can reduce health inequalities.

Key messages

  • The current multilingual landscape may present challenges to both the providers and the users of health and social care services, particularly since this era of ‘super-diversity’ coincides with a period of austerity.
  • Opinions on the best solutions to language barriers may vary from governmental strategies to teach English as a second language, to a preference for professional interpreters amongst some health practitioners or for informal approaches by some patients.
  • There are a number of different types of interpreting service available, each of which has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation.
  • The use of informal interpreting services may present some benefits in a time of austerity, not only because of potential cost savings, but also due to patient preferences, and the opportunity for practitioners to more actively engage in the interpreting process.
  • Through the use of toolkits and training, practitioners can ensure that the correct type of interpreting services is selected for any given scenario, recognising the difference in needs between, for example, mental health talking therapies and a service to help cancer patients to access benefits.


  • Working with language difference: patient and professional perspectives
  • Different types of language support
  • Suggestions for practical implementation in an era of austerity
  • Case study 1: the mental health context
  • Case study 2: translating basic information for the Citizen's Advice Bureau