Immigrants complain of language barriers at health centers

With one-fifth of the population speaking Arabic natively and scores of immigrants speaking Russian, English or Amharic as their native tongue, the health system is bound to have gaps.

March 8, 2018 16:43
2 minute read.

meuhedet building 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

Although Israel is a multicultural nation, its health services are not fully accessible to many immigrants because medical facilities lack information in their languages. This was argued at a session of the Knesset Committee on Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, headed by MK Avraham Neguise (Likud).

“About one-fifth of the population speaks Arabic as a native language, and large groups of immigrants speak Russian, French, English, Amharic and Portuguese,” Dr. Nurit Yachimovich-Cohen of the Knesset’s Research and Information Center said on Wednesday.

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“The linguistic gap may cause gaps in health and in the consumption of health services. In 2011, the Health Ministry’s director-general [Moshe Bar Siman Tov] set down rules for cultural competence in hospitals and community health clinics,” she noted. “But these rules have been only partially implemented, and the ministry has failed to monitor the implementation of the circulars.

In addition, health fund websites use translation mainly for marketing rather than as a service to its members. Maccabi Health Services’ website, for example, has not been translated into any language and remains Hebrew only. “Most of the medical staff at all levels were not trained to work with speakers of other languages, and this is especially serious in organizations that deal with emergencies, as translation is important for saving lives,” said Yachimovich-Cohen. In addition, she said, the ministry’s emergency interpreter’s phone service does not work around the clock.

Neguise – who was born in Ethiopia in 1958 and immigrated to Israel in 1985 – complained about the ministry’s providing accessibility to medical services in various languages. He said the ministry was allocated NIS 19.6 million to make medical services accessible to speakers of Amharic, but said he had no idea what was accomplished with the money.

Dr. Emma Averbuch, who represented the ministry, said that budgeting for language accessibility is influenced by priorities. She added that the ministry created a video training kit that cost NIS 500,000 and established a language center that cost NIS 1.5 million a year, but it was closed during night hours due to lack of funds.

Margalit Shilo of Leumit Health Services, the smallest health fund, said training staffers for improving language accessibility will take years. The fund already employs Ethiopian immigrants who assist in translation and has translated a number of forms into Amharic, she said.

Meuhedet Health Services representative Yishai Kum said the language issue is on its agenda. He added that there is an urgent need for a database of digital forms in various languages for use by all the health funds as well as the production of information material on diseases and preventive medicine.

Israel Medical Association representative Prof. Marc Mimouni claimed that in the absence of a budget, the Patient’s Rights Law cannot be implemented. The law requires a doctor to make sure patients understand what doctors say to patients, but this cannot be done without interpreters.

Neguise summarized by saying, “There is a big gap between the director-general’s document and activity on the ground.” He demanded that the Health Ministry implement at least the director-general’s circular. The chairman of the committee asked representatives of the Health Ministry for additional information to be discussed.

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