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

Alan Cass, Anne Lowell, Michael Christie, Paul L. Snelling, Melinda Flack, Betty Marrnganyin, Isaac Brown

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

231 Citations (Scopus)


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)466-470
Number of pages5
JournalMedical Journal of Australia
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 20 May 2002


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