Introduction Paediatricians now come in increasing contact with a significant number of families with limited English proficiency (LEP). We did a national audit looking at the extent of the problem and the provision of interpreter services to paediatric consultants across the UK.
Methods Consultant paediatricians in the UK were invited by email to complete an anonymous web based survey in November 2008. Information was collected on the location of the consultants, the type of hospital and interpreter services provided and their experience with using the various interpreters.
Results A total of 75 languages were identified by paediatricians as commonly needing interpreters. 54 (72%) needed interpreters during the preceding seven days. Overall, Polish (58.1%) was the language most common, followed by Urdu (50.4%), Bengali (44.3%) and Somali (37%). In each NHS region, a different total number of languages required an interpreter. In five NHS regions, the prevalence of LEPs was estimated to be >30%. The largest number was in London where 25.5% of respondents estimated a prevalence of >30%. Interpreters were used by 246 (40.9%) paediatricians, most of these were in teaching hospitals and in inner cities (p<0.0001). For respondents reporting provision of a language service, professional interpreters (34.2%) and parents (31.5%) were preferred if available. Friends (19.2%), medical staff (8.3%), non-medical NHS staff (9.9%) were other alternatives. Tourists and international patients are more likely to need interpreters (Fishers exact test, two tailed P = 0.0194) than local population. Majority (89.4%) of paediatricians needed interpreter's up to 4 times a week. The availability of a bilingual family member (78.6%) and bilingual staff (61.3%) and difficulty accessing a professional interpreter (30.4%) were the most common reasons given by the consultants for not requesting a professional interpreter.
Conclusions Despite a growing need, the provision of language services across the UK is inadequate even in areas that have large number of patients with LEP. While face to face interpreters are often available during working hours, they are difficult to procure within 4 h of request and often difficult to access out of hours. Telephone interpreter service is not used uniformly. Urgent measures have to be implemented to address this growing need.