Many Deaf people around the world face inequalities when accessing healthcare services or information, from visiting their GP or having a scan during pregnancy, to seeking support with their mental health.

They are more likely to suffer ill health than other people, simply because it is harder for them to use the health services that many of us take for granted, and are twice as likely to have high blood pressure, four times more likely to develop diabetes and generally have a reduced life expectancy[1].

We should all be able to talk to our doctors and nurses, and for them to talk to us, but many studies report Deaf patients encounter severe communication barriers when accessing health services. Worryingly, a recent NHS report showed 44% of Deaf patients found the last contact with their GP or health centre to be difficult or very difficult, compared with only 17% from a general population patient survey[2]. The current pandemic has only served as a reminder that something needs to change.

Coronavirus and the Deaf community

The coronavirus pandemic has increased communication barriers for the Deaf community. The initial press conferences and TV adverts delivering vital health information as the crisis took hold had no interpreters present, leaving some Deaf people misunderstanding information.

Furthermore, many of the 12 million people who are Deaf or have hearing loss rely on lip-pattern and facial expression to communicate and, with the use of face coverings in certain indoor settings now mandatory to reduce infection spread, many Deaf people have been left frustrated, isolated and unable to communicate properly in public.

Access to health services is a right

Under the Human Rights Act, adequate access to health services is a civil right, meaning health practitioners and staff must establish effective communication with Deaf patients as part of their human rights, however, many are reportedly unaware of Deaf culture and the health needs of Deaf people.

Practitioners often believe that lip reading and note taking provide effective health communication, when in fact they are ineffective methods for health care conversations and carry huge risks of misinterpretation and even misdiagnosis.

The government must find optimum strategies to integrate Deaf peoples’ needs into primary health care systems and ensure they are given information in a way they can understand.

In a large-scale research about the preferred communication mode of Deaf and hard of hearing people in clinical settings in the UK, 50% of sign language users preferred to communicate via sign language interpreters[3], proving that interpreters are essential for patients to receive the best care.

On demand interpreters

For patients with limited English proficiency, the use of professional language interpreters is correlated with improved clinical care, and Deaf patients report positive experiences in health care encounters when medically experienced professional sign language interpreters are present.

In today’s digital world, accessing a British Sign Language [BSL] interpreter on demand is easier than ever. Technologies and services are readily available to help Deaf patients make appointments, and interpreters can be booked at the click of a button to attend consultations. Health information can also be made available online in BSL to ensure Deaf patients have equal access to important information.