There are obvious challenges for a deaf person in regard to communication with others, but these are especially difficult when dealing with healthcare professionals. Thus the use of assistive technology is especially effective in ensuring both patient and healthcare professional are understood and important information is relayed. There are several methods which can be utilized: email, fax, Video Relay Service (VRS), Relay service (phone with third person), and Video Phone (VP).
I had a bad experience when in the maternity ward after delivering my second son. The nurses had a shift change, and it was obvious they had not communicated with each other as to any “special needs” of their patients. The new shift did not know I was deaf. I was pushing the call button over and over for some help. Their response was to give me a sleeping pill. I was horrified the next day when I realized I had not breastfed my son overnight. There was no special technology needed to relay the information that I was deaf. All they needed to do was write on the board “deaf” along with other critical information such as allergies, etc. It is crucial to make sure there is no misunderstanding or lack of communication, especially in more critical situations. This is why I also believe one of the first questions a deaf person should be asked when admitted to a hospital is whether they require an interpreter. I also believe hospitals should have an interpreter available on site 24 hours a day.
In dealing with day to day healthcare communication issues, however, technology is becoming even more important. For example, one time while using the Relay service to call a doctor’s office, I sat on hold for 30 minutes. Frustrated, I ended up sending them a fax stating I had been waiting for over 30 minutes and since it was taking too much time to use Relay to communicate, asked if they would feel more comfortable using the fax. To my surprise, they immediately replied to me via fax. I have found this an effective way of relaying details of a prescription, a diagnosis, an explanation, lab results, etc. in a concrete form. Likewise if a patient has any questions, they can just write them down and submit them without chance of getting lost in translation of a third party. Just like fax, email and text messaging can also be effective ways of communicating details between deaf people and healthcare providers.
I find VRS or RELAY service to be tricky because of the third party aspect. Hence the reason I prefer fax, email and texting. With Relay, most deaf people have their own specially designated phone number associated with the system which allows a doctor or nurse, etc., to call and leave a message through an operator/voicemail. Unfortunately, messages are not always all encompassing, especially if the healthcare professional does not believe they are leaving the message directly with the person they are trying to contact. Privacy issues sometimes get in the way. However, if the deaf person is aware that someone is trying to call, they can try to carry on a conversation on a mobile device such as the Blackberry or Sidekick. This can be tough though, especially if they are driving.
VRS, however, allows someone who uses sign language to communicate via video with a certified interpreter through the internet. The interpreter will voice or relay the messages or conversation over the phone to the hearing party. By using sign language via video, a deaf caller is also able to see expressions and cues. This is definitely something lacking in the use of TTY or Relay and other third party devices. This might be a deaf person’s most direct way to communicate with another party. At least the opportunity exists to effectively translate the tone of a conversation which is otherwise lost.
Perhaps the best suggestion is that all doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals should go for training to help them understand how to care for their deaf patients better. It could be a requirement such as CPR certification. It would certainly help bridge the divide between the hearing healthcare community and the deaf population, especially since there are so many different communication tools now utilized by various people in the deaf community. All avenues should be understood and considered in what will work best for THEIR patient.
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