Sharing the true stories: improving communication between Aboriginal patients and healthcare workers

Med J Aust. 2002 May 20;176(10):466-70. doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2002.tb04517.x.


Objectives: To identify factors limiting the effectiveness of communication between Aboriginal patients with end-stage renal disease and healthcare workers, and to identify strategies for improving communication.

Design: Qualitative study, gathering data through (a) videotaped interactions between patients and staff, and (b) in-depth interviews with all participants, in their first language, about their perceptions of the interaction, their interpretation of the video record and their broader experience with intercultural communication.

Setting: A satellite dialysis unit in suburban Darwin, Northern Territory. The interactions occurred between March and July 2001.

Participants: Aboriginal patients from the Yolngu language group of north-east Arnhem Land and their medical, nursing and allied professional carers.

Main outcome measures: Factors influencing the quality of communication.

Results: A shared understanding of key concepts was rarely achieved. Miscommunication often went unrecognised. Sources of miscommunication included lack of patient control over the language, timing, content and circumstances of interactions; differing modes of discourse; dominance of biomedical knowledge and marginalisation of Yolngu knowledge; absence of opportunities and resources to construct a body of shared understanding; cultural and linguistic distance; lack of staff training in intercultural communication; and lack of involvement of trained interpreters.

Conclusions: Miscommunication is pervasive. Trained interpreters provide only a partial solution. Fundamental change is required for Aboriginal patients to have significant input into the management of their illness. Educational resources are needed to facilitate a shared understanding, not only of renal physiology, disease and treatment, but also of the cultural, social and economic dimensions of the illness experience of Aboriginal people.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Communication Barriers*
  • Health Personnel*
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander*
  • Northern Territory