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Language as a barrier to care for Xhosa-speaking patients at a South African paediatric teaching hospital

ME Levin


Background. Disease is closely linked to the social context in which we live. Difficulty with communication, cultural incompatibility between patients and  health care providers and socioeconomic obstacles are important barriers to quality care when doctors and patients come from different backgrounds  and speak different languages. Red Cross War Memorial Children's  Hospital (RCH) is a paediatric teaching hospital in Cape Town where staff members communicate mainly in English or Afrikaans, while many patients speak Xhosa as their first language.
Objectives. The study aimed to identify barriers to optimal care for Xhosa-speaking parents of patients at RCH. The contribution of language difficulties was assessed as a possible barrier to health care for this group.
Design. A questionnaire was developed and administered to 53 Xhosa-speaking parents of children admitted to the shortstay ward at RCH. The questionnaire examined parents' perceptions of barriers to their children's care, using openended questions, closed-ended questions and selection from lists.

Results. Parents experienced significant structural andsocioeconomic barriers to access of health care for their children. Language and cultural barriers were cited by more parents as a major barrier to health care than structural and socioeconomic barriers. Parents did not have access to  same language practitioners, as only 6% of medical interviews were conducted partly or wholly in the patient's home language. Of the 94% of interviews where no Xhosa was spoken by medical staff, 21% were conducted with the aid of an interpreter (formal or ad hoc) and in 79% no interpreter was used. Parents experienced difficulties with understanding the doctors (64%), making themselves understood (54%) and asking questions (38%). Sixty-nine per cent of parents were dissatisfied with communication between themselves and their doctors and 45% were  concerned about negative effects of poor communication on them or their children. Parents tended to blame their own linguistic limitation rather than those of the doctors.

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eISSN: 2078-5135
print ISSN: 0256-9574