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UK general practices operate in an environment of high linguistic diversity, because of recent large-scale immigration and of the NHS's commitment to provide a professional interpreter to any patient if needed. Much activity in general practice is co-ordinated and patterned into organisational routines (defined as repeated patterns of interdependent actions, involving multiple actors, bound by rules and customs) that tend to be stable and to persist. If we want to understand how general practices are responding to pressures to develop new routines, such as interpreted consultations, we need to understand how existing organisational routines change. This will then help us to address a second question, which is how the interpreted consultation itself is being enacted and changing as it becomes routinised (or not) in everyday general practice. In seeking answers to these two questions, we undertook a qualitative study of narratives of interpreted primary care consultations in three London boroughs with large minority ethnic populations. In 69 individual interviews and two focus groups, we sought accounts of interpreted consultations from service users, professional interpreters, family member interpreters, general practitioners, practice nurses, receptionists, and practice managers. We asked participants to tell us both positive and negative stories of their experiences. We analysed these data by searching for instances of concepts relating to the organisational routine, the meaning of the interpreted consultation to the practice, and the sociology of medical work. Our findings identified a number of general properties of the interpreted consultation as an organisational routine, including the wide variation in the form of adoption, the stability of the routine, the adaptability of the routine, and the strength of the routine. Our second key finding was that this variation could be partly explained by characteristics of the practice as an organisation, especially whether it was traditional (small, family-run, 'personal' identity, typically multilingual, loose division of labour, relatively insular) or contemporary (large, bureaucratic, 'efficient' identity, typically monolingual, clear division of labour, richly networked). We conclude that there is a fruitful research agenda to be explored that links the organisational dimension of interpreting services with studies of clinical care and outcomes. © 2007 Foundation for the Sociology of Health & Illness/Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Original publication




Journal article


Sociology of Health and Illness

Publication Date





931 - 954