PREVENTABLE deaths could occur due to a lack of support for non-English speakers at GP surgeries around Darlington, a report has warned.

A number of surgeries are making improvements following the publication of research that highlighted problems faced by the town's BME (black, minority and ethnic) community.

Healthwatch Darlington’s report found lives could be put at risk by a failure to ensure patients with little English could adequately communicate with GPs and surgery staff.

Case studies underlined significant difficulties for such patients in registering with doctors, accessing appointments and understanding information provided.

Researchers found that translation and interpretation services commissioned by NHS England and employed by GP services in the area were often inappropriate and failed to acknowledge the variation of regional dialects spoken in the town.

Sajna Miah, who assisted with the report, said Darlington's large Bangladeshi population spoke a different dialect, for example, than the Bangladeshi interpreters used by GP surgeries.

She said a failure to adequately match interpretation services to local needs could lead to communication breakdowns with potentially severe consequences, citing the example of one young man who recently had surgery cancelled due to an failure in interpretation.

Ms Miah said nationally commissioned services should be adapted to suit the varied needs of each town, adding: “Every town has different needs and 70 languages are spoken in Darlington.

“If English is not your first language, it can be a nightmare to access health services and having the wrong interpreter can cause a lot of distress - we’re seeing massive breakdowns in communication.”

She added: “This has been a big problem but improvements are being made – however, where it does happen, we want people to report it.

“It’s also important to get across how vital it is for those who can’t speak English to do what they can to learn it, to help themselves.”

The report made a series of recommendations, including asking GPs to review their accessible information policies to ensure there is a clear focus on support for non-English speaking patients; having ‘first point of contact’ staff be proactive in offering support during registration; to have information available in languages appropriate to local communities;

It also recommended that NHS England review the interpretation and translation service provided to ensure it is “high quality, accessible and responsive to a patient’s linguistic and cultural identity”.

It said: “Failing to match a patient’s first or preferred language can impact on patient experience and health outcomes, the frequency of missed appointments and the effectiveness of consultations.

“It may have serious implications such as misdiagnosis and treatment, ineffective interventions and, in extreme circumstances, preventable deaths.”

Michelle Thompson, chair of Healthwatch Darlington, said she was pleased to see GP surgeries making positive changes in light of the report and said the organisation would be monitoring the situation.