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Mobile translators for non-English-speaking women accessing maternity services

02 November 2014
16 min read
Volume 22 · Issue 11


It is becoming increasingly common for midwives to care for women who do not speak English, and UK interpreting services are often inadequate and underused. Persistent language barriers have been found to contribute to maternal and perinatal mortality thus it is essential that these barriers are overcome to provide safe maternity care. This article reports on a two-stage study undertaken to address this. The study aimed to:

• Identify difficulties midwives experience when communicating with non-English-speaking women. Through undertaking a group interview with 11 senior students, four themes emerged: accessing interpreters, working with interpreters, cultural barriers and strategies to address persistent language barriers

• Explore the feasibility of using mobile devices with a translation application to communicate in clinical practice. Google Translate was tested in a simulated clinical environment with multi-lingual service users. Google Translate was not adequately developed to be safely used in maternity services. However, a maternity-specific mobile application could be built to help midwives and women communicate in the presence of a persistent language barrier.

Communication skills are fundamental to midwifery (Nicholls and Webb, 2006; Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), 2009). Communication errors occur when the message becomes distorted; this can be due to the ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’ speaking a different language (Dysart-Gale, 2007). With an increasingly global society, it is becoming more common for contemporary midwifery practice to involve caring for recently-migrated women who speak different languages. This creates the potential for communication errors to occur due to language barriers.

As well as difficulties in communicating in English, recently-arrived migrant women tend to have poor underlying health and more complicated pregnancies, which can result in an increased risk of maternal and perinatal mortality (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2010; Centre for Maternal and Child Enquiries (CMACE), 2011). Poor communication between staff and pregnant women is one of the most pervasive threats to patient safety (Paul and Schyve, 2007) and CMACE suggests that language barriers may have had an influence on the death of 26 women between 2006–2008 (CMACE, 2011). These women were not able to provide a full medical history, which resulted in inappropriate clinical decision-making (CMACE, 2011). In addition, adequate communication is essential for acquiring informed consent from a woman when performing any examination or intervention; without this consent, the midwife could be accused of undertaking a physical assault (Dimond, 2006).

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