Background: The subjective experiences of patients with little or no English who either attended the Emergency Department or were admitted to the wards of a tertiary referral hospital were explored.
Setting and methods: The reports of experiences from 49 patients of a tertiary referral hospital were analysed using grounded theory methods applied to translated transcriptions from focus groups held with discharged patients in seven languages.
Results: Inability to communicate in English, poor patient and family involvement with staff, a lack of control or powerlessness, staff shortages, staff negligence or incompetence, and treatment delays were reported by some patients. Others tended to discount or minimise the significance of similar experiences, suggesting a construct, “The Happy Migrant Effect,” in which there is reluctance to assert healthcare rights. Patients appear “happy” and satisfied, despite problems with their hospital care. Explanatory factors for the construct include extreme powerlessness related to being unable to communicate, a positive comparison of healthcare in the new country compared with the old, patriotism for the new country, cultural norms that proscribe acceptance, politeness or social desirability, self-denigration for not having learnt English and, for a few, a fear of reprisals if they spoke out in complaint.
Conclusions: Some immigrant patients with poor language skills might not report serious problems with healthcare delivery. In all patients in this study where problems with healthcare were reported, the events were considered to be largely preventable by appropriate language facilitation, patient and family involvement, and provider respect and compassion.
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