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Access to health services in French is more than just a right

By Joel Lafond
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Monday, July 26, 2021

When it comes to the desire to maintain good health (bonne santé), health-care professionals and the people they serve are on the same page. Sometimes, however, they don't speak the same language, and that can be a challenge that requires action far beyond a blasé shrug of the shoulders and a "C’est la vie".

French Language Services (FLS) assists the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's sites, facilities and programs in promoting and providing health services in French in accordance with WRHA policies and government legislation. It's a mandate that recognizes that francophones have a legal right to service in French. More importantly from our perspective, however, offering services in French is a pathway to greater patient safety and better health outcomes.

To put that another way, we believe that delivering health services in French isn't just something the WRHA has to do, but which makes sense to do.

The facts support that belief:

  • Research shows that in times of crisis, francophones (and others) who speak English as a secondary language will often revert to their mother tongue. In similar fashion, elderly francophone patients experiencing cognitive decline will often revert to French.
  • Research has also shown that misunderstandings or confusion related to language barriers can result in reduced compliance with health- or medication-related directives provided by health professionals. That can lead to longer recovery times, extended stays in hospital and more frequent trips to the emergency room, all of which put unnecessary strain on patients and the health-care system. In extreme cases, misunderstanding instructions can even be a matter of life and death.
  • While the link between income and health is well-known and accepted, fewer people realize that the correlation between primary language and health care levels is even higher. In particular, research shows that language barriers have a proven, negative impact on access to, and the use of, health services.

There's also the question of comfort. In a recent survey, more than two-thirds of Manitoba francophone respondents said it was important to receive services in French. Tellingly, however, 40 per cent reported having difficulty receiving services in French, and only about a third felt comfortable requesting health services in French.

Given all of those statistics, it's clear that the WRHA's commitment to offering service in French reflects good health policy.

Although the WRHA created its FLS program to help ensure access to services in French, the role of FLS is largely one of leadership and helping ensure that patient information, educational materials, consent forms, websites, advertising, and signage, etc., is available in both official languages.

Much of the day-to-day work involved in providing service and support to clients, patients, residents and their families falls to bilingual staff at the WRHA's various sites, facilities and programs. It is based on the concept of "active offer" — an offer that demonstrates that services in French are evident, readily available, easily accessible (whether provided by oral, written or electronic methods) and of comparable quality to those offered in English.

Bilingual employees are asked to wear a bilingual identifier - usually in the form of a "Hello, Bonjour" button or lanyard - that identifies them as French-speaking. It's a signal to francophones that service in French is available, and that they can converse in French from the outset of their interaction with the employee wearing the identifier.

Though we are by no means perfect, our staff does an admirable job in terms of commitment and practice. The challenge is often one of numbers. Whereas the WRHA has designated about 1,000 positions that, ideally, would be staffed by bilingual employees, only 595 are currently filled. That's because, while roughly 10 per cent of staff (1280 employees) can speak both official languages, not all of them are fully qualified or choose to work in bilingual-designated positions.

Obviously, not all WRHA employees are bilingual, nor would it be realistic to ask for that, but we're working to ensuring that our bilingual workforce is deployed in the right place at the right time to help ensure we can help francophone patients access French services. That's the key to success.

To help meet that challenge, the WRHA offers some incentives to staff, including language training. FLS also maintains a mailing list that alerts bilingual staff to available designated-bilingual positions.

Where gaps in service exist, staff and patients can access Interpreter Services for in-person or over-the-phone language interpretation services.

Though there is much work yet to accomplish, the WRHA remains committed to providing service in French. For the FLS team, that commitment is not just a requirement, it's our raison d’être. For more information, visit wrha.mb.ca/french-language-services/.

Joel Lafond is Regional Manager, French Language Services for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority


Four ways to access health services in French:

  1. Confused about where to go to access health services in French? Health Links-Info Santé, Manitoba's 24-hour telephone health information service, is a great place to start. Call 204-788-8200 in Winnipeg or 1-888-315-9257 toll-free elsewhere in the province. (Note: For emergencies, always call 911.)
  2. Family Doctor Finder can help you connect with a French-speaking family doctor. To register by phone, call 204-786-7111 (in Winnipeg) or Toll-free at 1-866-690-8260 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday.
  3. If you are attending a health-care facility and services in French are not available, ask for an interpreter.
  4. A link to our booklet, Les soins voulus en français : comment accéder aux services de santé en français à Winnipeg (Care in French: How to Access French-Language Health Services in Winnipeg) is available at wrha.mb.ca/french-language-services/.

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