Midwives Who Failed to Deal With Language Barrier Ruled Negligent

In an ever smaller world, medical and other professionals must be able to conquer language barriers, and a failure to do so can be negligent. In a recent case, the High Court found that hospital midwives breached their duty by failing to explain to a non-English speaking mother how she should go about feeding her baby.

The baby boy was delivered by Caesarean section and all seemed well. He was discharged home with his mother two days later. However, a community midwife who visited the following day found him pale and lethargic. He was swiftly readmitted to the hospital, but not in time to save him from brain damage. He had not been fed for 12 to 15 hours and it was agreed that lack of nutrition caused his injuries. He suffers from cerebral palsy and will require care for the rest of his life.

In upholding the eight-year-old boy's damages claim against the NHS trust that ran the hospital, the High Court noted that his mother was a refugee from Sri Lanka whose mother tongue was Tamil. She spoke only a few basic words of English and was only able to understand even the simplest instructions when they were accompanied by hand gestures.

As a result of the language barrier, the mother's concerns about her baby's constant crying were effectively ignored by midwives on the busy maternity ward and she had not been given any clear or understandable instructions as to how to feed her baby or what she should do if feeding proved unsuccessful.

The result was that mother and baby were discharged from hospital earlier than they should have been and the Court found that, had they been kept in hospital overnight, the boy would have escaped injury. The amount of his compensation remains to be assessed, but is bound to be a seven-figure sum.

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