A group of staff from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGCC) have achieved a first for the health service in Scotland, by completing a specialist language course in Urdu.
The Languages for Health classes have been run in conjunction with Strathclyde University, to provide a basic beginner's course to NHSGGC staff from a variety of disciplines. Urdu was chosen as the language for the pilot course as it is spoken by the greatest number of Glaswegians from ethnic minorities. The course was organised with Languages for Business, part of the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Strathclyde. It is the first University qualification in languages designed specifically for health professionals in Scotland.
Anne Taylor, Specialist Multicultural Health Nurse for NHSGGC, explains how the course has helped staff: "We've found that where people aren't comfortable communicating in English, it can be a barrier to them getting the best care.
"The fifteen members of NHSGGC staff who've completed Languages for Health can now introduce themselves in Urdu, ask basic questions about where the pain is and how often the patient takes medication. Although the language skills are basic, we're already finding it's helping a great deal."
But she is clear that it is not designed to take the place of the professional interpreting services: "This is all about being safe and being effective. It's vital that our interpreting colleagues play their part too. Conversations between clinical professionals and patients can be highly complicated and very personal, and this course doesn't cover that at all. Languages for Health is designed purely to help staff and patients communicate, which we hope will, in turn, improve health care."
The pilot course focused on teaching a small amount of vocabulary pertinent to clinical situations, and essential grammar. Basic conversation skills were also taught, including health-related questions. Staff from a variety of different professional backgrounds took part, from such specialist areas as cancer care, diabetes care, a GP practice, district nursing, specialist nursing, asylum seeker nursing, podiatry, physiotherapy, health promotion and administration and management.
Culture and customs were also a fundamental part of the course. Anne Taylor says these can make an enormous difference to health: "We already take indigenous culture and customs into account with health, and it's just a matter of extending that to other Glaswegians.
"Even just a small amount of knowledge really breaks down barriers, and knowing about cultural customs can make a huge difference. For example, if you have to shave some skin on a Sikh man so that you can insert a needle, he may need to be baptised again - an issue like that is very important to the patient but may never have occurred to the health professional."
Senior Podiatrist Jennifer Tidd is one of the Languages for Health graduates. She feels the course is already helping her with her work in Drumchapel: "I've always been interested in languages and this was something that was very different from my usual line of work but that would really help me in my job at the same time. On top of that, I got to learn with colleagues from different parts of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde who I might normally never meet.
"I'm now able to have a basic conversation in Urdu and I find patients really appreciate that. I can ask about parts of the body and I can ask about pain and different subjects that are relevant to the job.
"Finding out about the different cultural issues was also a real eye-opener. We learned about situations like when people might be fasting, and about times when a patient may not want to have a dressing put on certain parts of the body. I think we're all much more aware of the difficulties patients can have, and how we can help to overcome those."
A formal evaluation of Languages for Health has now been published, which has found that the course graduates have gained both professionally and personally, and that their new linguistic skills have been used to improve practice. It is possible that similar lessons in Punjabi, French or Polish may be run in the future.
* For more information contact NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Communications on 0141 201 4429.
* For more information about Strathclyde University's Centre for Lifelong Learning see http://www.cll.strath.ac.uk/.