Pond Inlet's Samantha Kublu speaks enough English to get by, but her mother tongue is Inuktitut.

That's the language she wants to use when dealing with sensitive medical issues but she says that's not an option for her at Nunavut's only hospital.

"They can't provide it," says Kublu, carefully choosing her words.

Kublu says because she speaks a bit of English she is often denied access to an interpreter.

"Some terms are so hard to understand, and when they're too busy it's impossible to ask around 'what does it mean?'" 

A new report on Qikiqtani General Hospital's compliance with Nunavut's Official Languages Act finds that health care staff's inability to communicate with patients in their mother tongue is jeopardizing patient safety.

Kublu says her limited language skills became a real barrier when she was very ill.

"When I was really sick, I couldn't get up or I couldn't even eat or drink and I needed help at most times," says Kublu.

Despite her condition and her desire to communicate in Inuktitut, she was not provided with an escort to help her communicate.

"It's hard," she says.

While Kublu has had her own challenges with accessing care in Inuktitut, she realizes that unilingual elders face even greater barriers.

"It must be so hard for them, not knowing any English, and they don't have any interpreters."

'I didn't know any of the medical words'

Rosie Katskak

'I didn't know any of the medical words like cancer, tumour, and it was hard for me to translate it,' says Rosie Katskak, who was asked to interpret for her mother. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

With a shortage of interpreters, patients at the hospital often have to rely on friends, family or even strangers for interpretation.

"One time I had to be an interpreter for my mom when she was still alive," says Rosie Katskak from Pond Inlet.

"I didn't know any of the medical words like cancer, tumour, and it was hard for me to translate it."

When dealing with health issues and a person's medical wellbeing, the stakes are high.

"Makes me feel like dumb," says Katskat.

Another complication is the variations between dialects, she says, making translating difficult medical information even more of a challenge.

Both Kublu and Katskat says the only solution is to hire more interpreters at the hospital and to offer patients care in the language they feel most confident speaking.

'Safety of the patient'

Sandra Inutiq, Nunavut's languages commissioner, says there is no clear plan to address short, medium, and long term changes needed at Qikiqtani General Hospital.

Sandra Inutiq

'This really affects the quality of care, the safety of the patient, the confidentiality issues,' says Sandra Inutiq, Nunavut's languages commissioner. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

"These are very serious situations and the Department of Health should be working towards correcting them — sooner rather than later — unless they want to continue being in a position to endanger the safety of patients."

She says without changes being made, non-English speaking patients at the hospital will not get the same quality of care.

"When you are in that vulnerable situation, being able to communicate your health condition is vital. That's why it's important that the interpreter knows the terminology, because it lessens the chance of misdiagnosis."

Inutiq says the health department's statements regarding improvements and training have not gone far enough.

"I have not felt comforted that there will be action," she says.

'Significant progress'

Deputy Minister of Health Colleen Stockley offered CBC a statement via email.

Cover of report on QGH

The report by Nunavut's languages commissioner says there is no clear plan to address short, medium, and long term changes needed at Qikiqtani General Hospital. (Nunavut's languages commissioner)

She stated that the department had provided a written response to the Office of the Language Commissioner's report on the hospital.

"Despite the report for this investigation having been finalized only recently, the Department has made significant progress on its commitments," Stockley stated.

"The staffing complement of medical clerk interpreters continues to grow with only two vacant positions, while medical terminology training for all staff is being offered in partnership with the Nunavut Arctic College."

Stockley added that a French-language medical clerk interpreter position has been established at Qikiqtani General Hospital.

"The development of a language plan is included as part of the department's top priorities," states Stockley.

"The department remains committed to providing quality care services in all official languages and continues to work toward eliminating any language barriers."

With files from Elyse Skura