BACKGROUND: The number of foreign-born people who do not share a common language has increased due to extensive international migration, which will increase in the future. There is limited knowledge about the users' perceptions of interpreters in health care. Aim: To describe how individuals from former Yugoslavia, living in Sweden, perceived the use of interpreters in Swedish healthcare services. METHOD: A phenomenographic approach was employed. Data were collected by semi-structured interviews during 2006-2007 with 17 people, aged 29-75 years, from former Yugoslavia, living in Sweden. FINDINGS: Three descriptive categories were identified: (1) prerequisites for good interpretation situations; (2) the interpretation situation - aspects of satisfaction or dissatisfaction; and (3) measures to facilitate and improve the interpreter situation. The interpreter's competence, attitude, appearance and an appropriate environment are important prerequisites for interpretation. The interpreter was perceived as being a communication aid and a guide in the healthcare system in terms of information and practical issues, but also as a hindrance. A desirable professional interpreter was perceived as highly skilled in medical terminology and language, working in face-to-face interaction. CONCLUSION: Using an interpreter was perceived as a hindrance, though also needed in communication with healthcare staff and as a guide in the healthcare system. Face-to-face interaction was preferred, with the interpreter as an aid to communication. As part of individual care planning it is important to use interpreters according to the patients' desires. Healthcare organizations and guidelines for interpreters need to be developed in order for patients to have easy access to highly skilled professional interpreters.
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