Rationale and objectives: Multiculturalism presents linguistic obstacles to health care provision. We explored the early introduction of "interpreter" role-play exercises in teaching medical undergraduates communication skills. The interpreter role creates a natural barrier in communication providing an active prompt for recognizing learning needs in this area.
Methods: Bilingual Cantonese first-year medical students (n=160) were randomly allocated to either "Observer" or "Interpreter" role plays at a small-group introductory communication skills workshop using a quasi experimental design, counterbalanced across tutors. Students assessed their own skill competence before and, together with their perceptions of the different role plays' effectiveness, again after the workshop, using an anonymous 16 item Likert-type scale, analysed using ANOVA and MANOVA.
Results: Students' assessments of their skills improved significantly following the workshop (F=73.19 [1,156], P=0.0009). Students in the observer group reported greater changes in their scores following the workshop than did students in the interpreter group (F=4.84 [1,156], P=0.029), largely due to improvement in perceived skill (F=4.38 [1,156], P=0.038) rather than perceived programme effectiveness (F=3.13 [1,156], P > 0.05). Subsequent MANOVA indicated no main effect of observer/interpreter conditions, indicating these differences could be attributed to chance alone (F=1.41 [16 141], P > 0.05).
Conclusion: The workshop positively influenced students' perceived communication skills, but the "Interpreter" role was less effective than the "Observer" role in achieving this. Future studies should examine whether interpreter role plays introduced later in the medical programme are beneficial.