My colleague Barbara Wright and I recently spoke to residents from the South Asian community to listen to their experiences of using local services in Bury. As English is not this group’s first language it was helpful that the Asian Development Association of Bury (ADAB) hosted the meeting. ADAB is a local organisation based in Bury offering support to minority ethnic communities. One of their many areas of work is helping these communities to improve their health and wellbeing – this made them an ideal base to start conversations with community members about what could be done to make this happen.

The session had a great turnout and we received a lot of complimentary feedback. However, as the discussion continued, we started to notice just how much of a challenge it can be to do what we might consider the easiest of tasks like booking a GP appointment or knowing what services are available locally when English isn’t your first language. The majority of the group was unable to use technology. They could not use GP online services to book appointments and order repeat prescriptions or do a quick internet search to find out where to go for advice, so as a result, they would often go to hospital.

The discussion revealed how cultural differences can impact the way people may address issues such as cancer or emotional problems. There is still a big stigma and a lack of awareness around mental health in some South Asian communities – some languages do not even have the vocabulary to describe mental health problems. Another issue the group highlighted was when they did have appointments, the majority would take a family member with them as they trusted them to assist with overcoming the language barrier unless it was for a serious issue such as mental health or cancer, and it is in these scenarios that they would prefer to have an interpreter.

Taking part in this discussion with members of our South Asian community and learning about how their cultural background has impacted the way they access our local health services reinforced the importance for why practice and healthcare colleagues must be patient focused. I want my patients to be able to speak to me in confidence without language being a barrier. Talking to patients gives you a better understanding of their problems and is essential for providing the right care. As a health service, it is crucial we reach out to the range of communities that make up our local population and provide care that is respectful of and responsive to their needs and values. By working with ADAB, we can break down the language barrier Bury’s South Asian population experiences to promote and raise awareness of where and how medical care can be accessed to improve their health and wellbeing.

Improving understanding around the role and difference between a nurse, doctor or pharmacist within different settings such as the GP practice, out-of-hours service or hospital will help build people’s confidence in knowing where to go to seek the right medical attention. National health campaigns have helped to raise awareness of symptoms linked to some chronic illnesses such as cancer or stroke within the general public, but unless you can process mainstream media in English, the campaign message will be lost. Campaign materials are available in different languages and formats for minority ethnic groups. Although placing leaflets in settings people are likely to access will help to increase the chances of them being seen, some speakers of South Asian languages are unable to read in their native tongue, which is why ADAB’s work is crucial to improving this population’s understanding of signs and symptoms.

Acknowledging cultural differences can help to tackle more sensitive topics such as mental health. ADAB holds events in venues that are ideally placed in the heart of these communities. With their expertise we can help to address sensitive issues and introduce services that provide help and support to those experiencing symptoms of anxiety, stress, low moods or panic attacks, such as Bury Healthy Minds, in a familiar and comfortable setting.

I am pleased the group were positive but there is still more to be done to improve the community’s understanding. Bury is fortunate to have organisations like ADAB who are available to help. If you’re the family member that attends appointments with a relative whose first language isn’t English, or feel they could benefit from having an interpreter so they can speak in confidence with their healthcare professional, please do not hesitate to ask for help. We all want to live a healthy life – this could be another way we can make it happen.