Court tightens standard hospitals must meet to communicate with deaf patients

Female doctor talking to male patient in hospital bed
Deaf patients too often encounter inadequate interpretive services during hospital visits. (Image: Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

In the wake of harrowing experiences by deaf patients, a court decision has tightened the standard hospitals must meet for effective communication.

The provision of adequate interpretation services for non-English-speaking patients presents hospitals with a continuing problem. As hospitals scramble to find innovative ways to communicate with the 40 million people in the country who have limited proficiency in English, some have turned to video conferencing with remote interpreters, a solution that STAT reports hasn't worked well for deaf patients.

The publication found “dozens of instances” in which hospitals provided inadequate interpretation services to deaf patients. Even when patients receive adequate treatment, experiences involving technical glitches with video interpreters or frustrating exchanges of handwritten notes take an emotional toll. “I’m terrified to go to the hospital in these situations,”  John Paul Jebian, the founder of Waving Hands, a not-for-profit organization for Miami’s deaf community, told STAT.

Along with Cheylla Silva, Jebian recently won the right to sue Baptist Health South Florida for discrimination, according to the Miami Herald. Silva and Jebian brought their suit in 2014 under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates the provision of assistance to ensure effective communication with patients in hospitals receiving federal funding. STAT notes that the Affordable Care Act also requires hospitals to give “primary consideration” to the type of aid preferred by a patient, ranging from on-site interpreters to notes or remote interpreters.

The opinion handed down by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals clarifies the assistance hospitals are legally required to provide, according to Matthew Dietz, an attorney with the non-profit Disability Independence Group, which argued the case on Silva and Jebian’s behalf. “[The court] basically said a person who is deaf is entitled to equal participation through effective communication, which is the most that we could ever expect,” he told the Herald.

The newspaper notes that the opinion still provides hospitals leeway to determine the best method of interpretation for patients at a given visit, but emphasizes that the method they choose must be effective, taking into account the patient’s needs and the context of the visit.