La santé

Quebec doctors say plan to bolster French language will harm patients

A coalition of doctors and health-care professionals say the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s proposal to bolster its language law will reduce access to health care and social services for those who don’t speak French in Quebec.

The current version of Bill 96 proposes the use of French in the health-care and social services sector, something which could seriously put people’s lives and mental health in danger, the Coalition pour des services sociaux et de santé de qualité (CSSSQ) says. 

“It’s already difficult enough to understand information under stressful circumstances, adding unnecessary barriers will only increase this risk and undermine providers’ ability to deliver optimal care,” they wrote in an open letter Wednesday, adding newcomers with no or only limited knowledge of the language will be the ones most harmed if the law is adopted.

Under the CAQ’s proposal immigrants would be required to be served in French within six months of their arrival in the province. There are no exceptions for refugees and asylum seekers under the plan. 

The reform of Bill 101 tabled by Simon Jolin-Barrette, Quebec’s minister responsible for the French language, includes a clause saying exceptions can be made in situations “where health, public safety or the principles of natural justice require it,” but the coalition says the wording in the bill needs to be more precise to ensure patient safety.

The coalition says it’s disappointed their efforts to work with the province to amend it haven’t been fruitful. 

Dr. Suzanne Gagnon works with refugees in the Quebec City region, and said a six month deadline to understand and communicate effectively enough in French is “completely unrealistic.” 

“These patients are vulnerable; 80 per cent of them speak neither French nor English when they arrive,” Gagnon told The Canadian Press. 

“Some of them have been in refugee camps for 20 years, or are used to alphabets completely different from our own. Some have little education and are older,” said Gagnon, also the co-founder of the Refugee Health Clinic at the regional health authority for the region, the CIUSSS de la Capitale-Nationale. 

The doctor says she often has to call on interpreters during appointments with her patients. 

‘Every word is important’ 

“If the person has had a splinter in the finger, we can work it out,” but complex cases involve nuances and subtleties, Gagnon said. 

“If we have to talk about sensitive subjects such as mental health problems, children who have behavioral problems for which we should involve youth services, depression or the discontinuation of care, then every word is important.”

Poor communication between health-care professionals and those who aren’t fluent enough in French could also infringe on patients’ right to free and informed consent when making medical decisions, she said. 

“If the person only understands us halfway, this can all go very wrong. It can lead to medical errors, even deaths,” Gagnon said. 

She agrees it’s important to encourage immigrants to learn French, but said enforcing its use in health care isn’t the right approach. She also has concerns health professionals who choose to speak in another language or to rely on interpreters could be shunned. 

A spokesperson for Jolin-Barette’s office told The Canadian Press the proposal “remains intact.” 

“It was even written in black and white in Bill 96. Citizens will continue to have access to health care. There is nothing in the bill that will prevent Quebecers from seeking treatment,” they wrote on Wednesday.