Language interpretation: migrant health guide

Advice and guidance on the health needs of migrant patients for healthcare practitioners.

Main messages

General Medical Council guidance states that you must make sure, wherever practical, that arrangements are made to meet patients’ language and communication needs.

Language is very important in the context of the health practitioner to patient consultation. It can help reduce barriers between practitioner and patient and ensure safety with respect to diagnosis and prescription.

Where language is a problem in discussing health matters, offer a professional interpreter rather than using family or friends. Using neutral-speaking interpreters can help foster trust with the patient.

It is particularly inappropriate to use children as interpreters for adults.

Mention interpreting needs when referring to other health professionals.

Communicating with patients

NHS 111 (telephone 111) can provide a confidential interpreter covering a wide range of languages for those using the service.

The Picture Communication Tool comprises a set of drawings to help speak with people whose first language is not English.

Migrants Organise has produced a ‘Good practice guide to interpreting’, which has information for patients about using interpreting services, particularly:

  • to help patients and their families understand why they should communicate with health services through a formal interpreter
  • why interpreting is important
  • how to use an interpreting service correctly

It is available in English, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese and Somali.

The British Red Cross and NHS ‘Emergency multilingual phrasebook’ (published 2004) is available in Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, Bosnian-Bosanski, Chinese, Czech, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Lingala, Macedonian, Pashto, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tamil, Turkish, Ukranian, Urdu, Vietnamese and Welsh.

Information about health and health services in Scotland is available on NHS Inform. This content is not routinely translated into other languages but a translation and interpretation service can be provided on request.

The Refugee Council has leaflets in many languages for refugees and asylum seekers who want to find out more about the asylum process.

NHS.UK provides health information in many languages.

NHS Heron has searchable patient information in a range of community languages.

The Chinese National Healthy Living Centre features interpretation support and multi-lingual health helpline.

EthnoMED is a U.S. website with a range of patient education materials in different languages.

Google translate allows you to type text or translate a document in over 50 languages.

Learning best practice

The e-GP online e-learning resource for NHS GPs and doctors undertaking specialty training for UK general practice includes training on ‘language barriers’.

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RGCP) provides a guide to using an interpreter.

NHS England ‘Improving the quality of interpreting in primary care’, a project to co-produce a set of principles with patients and clinicians to help reduce health inequalities in primary care settings.

Interpreting in a health context

Mothertongue have produced a series of videos about best practice for interpretation, and how therapists and interpreters can work effectively together in a health context.

Published 23 June 2017
Last updated 17 April 2018 + show all updates
  1. Updated information about health and health services in Scotland because the previous website ( has been archived.

  2. First published.