Health officials are working with GPs, dentists, opticians and pharmacists across North Wales to help them deliver services in Welsh.

Community-based language initiative Menter Iaith Bangor is working with the Welsh Language Unit of Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCUHB) across Gwynedd and Anglesey.

Primary care providers such as opticians, GPs, dentists and pharmacists are not covered by the Welsh Language Act 1993 as they are independent contractors.

BCUHB, which is covered by the legislation, has adopted the principle that the Welsh and English languages should be treated ‘on the basis of equality’ when providing services to the public in Wales.

The Health Board employs a team of Welsh language officers and translators who visit individual practices to discuss the advantages of providing services bilingually.

Its Welsh Language Unit is also working with Menter Iaith Bangor to support and encourage adoption of the principle of the Act across a wide range of primary care settings, providing free translation services, bilingual posters, letter templates, fast-learning CD language resources and bilingual greeting cards for reception areas.

Workshops have already been held in Bangor – where four in ten people speak Welsh as a first language – and the organisations are preparing to host new events across Anglesey and Arfon.

Eleri Hughes-Jones, BCUHB Head of Welsh Language Services, said there was a real business case for offering primary care services in Welsh.

“There is a real need to do this. The first point of contact for a high percentage of patients is with a primary care provider. We as a Health Board feel that there is a duty to provide Welsh speaking patients with Welsh medium services, be it in primary or secondary care,” she said.

“The providers have reacted positively to the work. It’s not only good practice but also a good business opportunity for opticians and dentists to enhance their Welsh language provision because it offers them the chance of increasing their client base.

“Providing bilingual care is important for the Health Board, which is going above and beyond its statutory duties to proactively promote bilingual services across all health practices.

“Some people, especially elderly people who usually speak Welsh in their everyday life, feel vulnerable having to explain something in what is effectively to them a second language. It can be incredibly difficult.

“There are communities across North Wales where quite a lot of the elderly population speak Welsh. They are already vulnerable by the nature of having to access health services and language barriers only add to this sense of vulnerability.”

The Health Board and Menter Iaith Bangor have established a working partnership with Bron Derw Medical Centre in Glynne Road, Bangor, helping the practice to provide bilingual correspondence to its patients.

They are also working with Canolfan Feddygol Bodnant Medical Centre in Menai Avenue, Bangor, which provides student health services for Bangor University as well as the wider community.

Canolfan Feddygol Bodnant GP Dr Catrin Elis Williams said: “As healthcare providers, being able to communicate effectively is an all-important skill for us. Many of our patients tell us how much easier it is to explain their concerns and worries in Welsh rather than in a second language.

“Important issues can get ‘lost in translation’ and we pride ourselves on being able to provide a service which meets the needs of our Welsh-speaking patients.”

Menter Iaith Bangor development officer Dylan Bryn Roberts added: “We want to raise awareness of the fact that so many people in and around Bangor are first-language Welsh-speakers and, given that those seeking primary care service attention are probably feeling quite vulnerable, we feel this is important work.

“Children, elderly people, those with disabilities and a large proportion of Welsh speakers can find it very hard to express themselves as well in a second language, which they may not feel completely comfortable in, so we’re trying to make primary care providers aware of that and to plan future provision with the Welsh language in mind.

“Our work with a range of primary health care providers is yielding positive results, the first of which is a greater appreciation and understanding of the importance of enabling patients and their families to converse with professionals in their preferred language and that this lies at the root of good quality health care in Wales.

“Creating a more bilingual identity and increasing staff’s confidence in using Welsh in the workplace are crucial stepping stones in advancing best practice within the sector.

“Menter Iaith Bangor is proud to be able to work in partnership with these providers for the greater good of all Bangor residents.”

Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board is fully committed to fulfilling the new Welsh Language Standards under the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 and to build on current best practice to ensure patients are actively offered services in Welsh in line with Welsh Government’s Framework More Than Just Words.