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Australia Strives to Make the Nation's Health Care System More Accessible for Migrants

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Australia’s health care system can be overly complex and frustrating at the best of times. 

However, for patients whose first language isn't English, failing to navigate the system can be more than just confusing and irritating — it can be life-threatening.

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It is this notion that has seen health care specialists across the country urged to reconsider how they communicate to patients with English language barriers, as statistics reveal 75% of Australians with English as a second language have trouble comprehending where to go and what to do when they get sick.

"With around 22% of all consumers in the health system born in non-English speaking countries, the health literacy of this community is significantly lower than the general population,” New South Wales Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant stated. “Health literacy is how people understand information about health and health care and how they apply that information to their lives. The role of our health workers assisting this population is more crucial than ever.”

In an attempt to redefine these statistics, Chant announced the theme of this year's NSW Multicultural Health Week, a comprehensive event held every September, will be ‘Health Literacy — Talk, Listen, Ask — For Better Health’.

The annual event puts a spotlight on the health issues that affect Australia’s multicultural community. It also endeavours to revamp the nation's health care system, a scheme that has long struggled to adapt to the mounting percentage of people who do not speak English as their primary language.

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As part of the NSW Multicultural Health Week, Director of Multicultural Health Communication Service Michael Camit announced an innovative toolkit had been released to doctors and nurses to help them improve the widespread miscommunication that exists between health professionals and culturally and linguistically diverse people across Australia. 

“It contains information on assessing the need for an interpreter, risks around using friends and family members to interpret, and the use of interpreters in health consultations,” Camit revealed, stating miscommunication has long impacted patient welfare and health care quality. 

“The toolkit covers tips on ways to improve readability of health information, prepare health resources for translations, improve signage for health services, as well as providing hospital tours for newly arrived migrants," he added. 

While there are various interpreting aids on offer in Australia, including the federal government's Translating and Interpreting Service, they mostly exist in major cities. An insignificant number offer in-person translation assistance in regional townships, where a growing number of migrants are currently settling.  

Various components of the toolkit were initiated immediately.

Last week, a group of migrants from Tibet and Taiwan, some who had lived in Australia for upwards of a decade, were given a tour of Shoalhaven Memorial Hospital on the NSW south coast. 

"This tour is very helpful for me,” Yi Ping McCarthy told SBS News.

McCarthy, who has recently moved to the south coast with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, revealed she has struggled to comprehend instructions and advice from her local GP in the past.

"If my daughter is sick, I know where I can go, and if I go to this hospital who I can speak to first, so it’s really good for me," she stated.