A Qualitative study of language barriers between South African health care providers and cross-border migrants

Journal Article


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title

BMC Health Services Research

Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Abstract Background Communication with health care providers represents an essential part of access to health care for the over 230 million cross-border migrants around the world. In this article, we explore the complexity of health communication from the perspective of cross-border migrants seeking antenatal care in Cape Town, South Africa in order to highlight the importance of high quality medical interpretation. Methods As part of a broader study of migrant maternal and infant nutrition, we conducted a secondary data analysis of semi-structured in-depth interviews (N = 23) with Congolese (n = 7), Somali (n = 8) and Zimbabwean (n = 8) women living in Cape Town, as well as nine focus group discussions (including men: n = 3 and women: n = 6) were conducted with migrant Somalis, Congolese, and Zimbabweans (N = 48). We first used content analysis to gather all data related to language and communication. We then analysed this data thematically. Results Zimbabwean participants described how the inability to speak the local South African language (IsiXhosa) gave rise to labelling and stereotyping by healthcare staff. Congolese and Somali participants described medical procedures, including tubal ligation, which were performed without consent. Partners often tried to play the role of interpreter, which resulted in loss of income and non-professional medical interpretation. Participants’ highlighted fears over unwanted procedures or being unable to access care. Challenges of communication without a common language (and without professional medical interpretation), rather than outright denial of care by healthcare professionals, mediated these encounters. Conclusion Although there are several factors impeding cross-border migrants’ access to health care, effective communication is a prerequisite for quality care. Free-to-patient professional medical interpretation would not only benefit migrant populations but would benefit the broader community where language and health literacy are barriers to accessing health care. Novel approaches to language access may include technology-enabled professional interpretation.