PATIENTS are being denied access to interpreters at Northern Health in cutbacks that doctors warn will put patients at risk.
The interpreters' union - the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia - said interpreters were being cancelled for dozens of patients each day in cost-saving measures that began a couple of weeks ago.
The Age has been told Northern Health wants to cut about 7000 interpreting appointments over the next year, which equates to 16 per cent of its total 43,202 interpreter requests in 2011.
About one in five of the health network's patients need an interpreter, including at the Northern Hospital in Epping and the Broadmeadows and Craigieburn health services.
The Australian Medical Association's Victorian president, Dr Stephen Parnis, said interpreters were vital to obtain informed consent from patients and reduce the risk of adverse outcomes due to miscommunication. ''When interpreters stand beside you and convey your words to a patient and a patient's words to you, that's an indispensable part of clinical care,'' he said.
''It's a big issue and we do have serious concerns if the quality and amount of those services are being cut back.''
APESMA Victoria director Bede Payne said slashing interpreting services would lead to errors and ultimately increase costs to the health service.
According to an Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria policy paper launched by Health Minister David Davis last month, non-English-speaking patients spend more time in hospital and have higher rates of readmission and diagnostic testing.
The report said the establishment of a transcultural and language services department at Northern Health in 2007 had reduced the average length of stay for patients with low English proficiency by three days.
In December, Northern Health chief executive Greg Pullen congratulated the department's team of about 14 staff - accredited to speak languages including Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Macedonian, Vietnamese and Chinese - for winning a ''prestigious national award'' for outstanding contribution from the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators.
In a response to questions from The Age, acting chief executive Robynne Cooke said Northern Health was working to ''maximise the efficiency'' of the department. While she said no staff would lose their jobs, Mr Payne said the department relied heavily on sessional interpreters whose numbers and hours were being cut.
''Every week 875 Northern Health patients need professional interpreting services to make sure they get the right kind of healthcare. Failing to provide adequate interpreting services will increase hospital stays and increase the chance of misdiagnosis,'' he said.
Opposition health spokesman Gavin Jennings said there had been a pattern of government neglect in Melbourne's north that included cutbacks to elective surgery and agencies helping victims of domestic violence.