When language is a barrier

Loath as I am to knock the NHS, I've recently experienced one of its less fine moments. The reason it happened is plain enough: not enough staff to cover clinics.

The signs were not good from the off. My appointment time had passed by 15 minutes or so when the registrar turned up with two colleagues. I could tell they were doctors before I saw them - something to do with the busy sound their shoes made. There was a burst of loud talking behind the office door and then off the registrar went, not to be seen again.

A nurse led me into one of the consulting rooms. They seem to do that in outpatients: fill up the rooms before the doctors are ready to see patients. Perhaps it’s to do with time and motion - move them along and keep them happy? The nurse said it would be another 15 minutes or so.

When a doctor did come into the room, two things immediately became apparent: 1. He was a nice chap - I could tell that by the way he shook my hand; 2. He knew absolutely no English - it was his look of utter bewilderment as I told him my medical history that gave it away. After a few moments of desultory clinical examination, we both gave up. We then passed a pleasant 40 minutes chatting.

When I say chatting, I really mean me teaching him some English. I’ve some of the words we discussed in my notebook, written much more clearly than usual so Khalil (not his real name) could copy them: complex, twisted, tingling, regional, no reason, typing, syndrome. We then shuffled through some of the standard medical referral forms kept in the room, and I attempted to explain what they were for.

Khalil wrote some words down in a desk diary. He spent a lot of time looking worried and brushing back his hair with his hands. The only time he seemed at all happy was when he sang me a snatch of a folk tune from his native Algeria. It was a catchy tune, I have to say.

Eventually I began to wonder how long this could possibly go on for. I suggested that Khalil get a second opinion. He left the room, and within a few minutes came back with a young doctor who said he was one of the juniors on the team and tried very hard not to roll his eyes in despair as he talked to Khalil. Within a few minutes the consultation was over and I was on my way home.

I can’t help feeling sorry for Khalil. In his country, he was a specialist, but here he might as well have been a porter. How on earth did he get the medical job? Perhaps we’re so desperate for qualified staff these days that sign language and a bit of mime will get you past the interview panel.

About the author

Ed Rowe trained at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London, in the late 1980s and practised in general surgery. He now works as a medical copy editor and a stay-at-home dad.