Swedish Volunteers Bridge Language Gap During COVID

Most health services struggle to translate medical materials for communities who may not be fluent in the country’s main language. By contrast, Sweden has a long-established tradition of support for patients who are not fluent in Swedish. During the pandemic, this is being underpinned by a local not for profit organisation coordinating volunteer translators using WhatsApp.

Volunteer translation

The Samarbetsorganisationen för Invandrarföreningar i Uppsala (Cooperative Organisation for Immigrant Unions in Uppsala), is a non-profit umbrella organisation with around 40 member associations in Sweden. When the pandemic hit Sweden, the organisation stepped in quickly to communicate Covid information to immigrant communities living in the Uppsala area in their own languages. Part of the urgency was to combat misinformation and rumours being circulated on social media.

The organisation used its existing wide mix of social media channels, website and local radio station to reach out in different languages, but also embraced using posters around the area to communicate official information about the disease.

Harnessing WhatsApp 

The organisation attracted worldwide attention by bringing together volunteers to handle Covid communication over WhatsApp in 15 languages including Somali, Chinese, varieties of Persian and Turkish. 

So, through WhatsApp, community members can have their concerns and questions addressed by volunteers in their own language, and receive updated information about the spread of the coronavirus and recommendations from health authorities and others.

Although it can be hard to govern and manage rapid communication like WhatsApp, it’s also increasingly being used for short, fast outreach by patient groups worldwide, including Asthma UK.

Immediate translation 

There’s also an increasing focus on developing apps that aid patient-doctor communication where both sides of the discussion speak different languages. For example, the Swedish app Care to Translate enables focused understanding at key points of the patients’ experience in a clinic or hospital. It can help the patient to express their symptoms, discuss treatment and address follow-up care at home. 

And finally…

The scale of linguistic challenge is easy to underestimate, even from English to Swedish. For example, when I trained Swedish nurses, each of whom had typically high fluency in English we tackled the challenge of `pain’. It turned out of course that words like ‘stabbing’, `shooting’, `nagging’ `dull’ pain and so on, are all very culturally-rooted. It all led to a practical session of a group of the nurses giving me a live electro-cardiogram test, and even with their fluent functional English, putting me as the `patient’ at ease and involved proved quite challenging. As with anything medical, finding out about it in a second language is far from most people’s comfort zones, and a barrier to fast, safe care. 


Visit the community organisation website at…

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News coverage on the outreach from Swedish Television at…

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Visit our sister blog, and twitter #PAGC19, which brings together examples of how patient groups are supporting their patients during the pandemic at… 

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Find out about Care to Translate app at…

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