Offer in-person interpretation for deaf patients, not video sessions, feds tell UVM Medical Center

Gavel and flag in courtroom
University of Vermont Medical Center has agreed to improve its communication options for deaf patients. (Getty/AlexStar)

Though a court decision earlier this year offered hospitals some leeway in how they communicate with deaf patients, The University of Vermont Medical Center has agreed to resolve a complaint that its use of video chat to provide interpreters is not sufficient to meet the needs of those patients.

The court ruling earlier this year tightened the standards that hospitals must follow to effectively communicate with deaf patients, but allowed hospitals some leeway on how to provide interpreters. 

Deaf patients have filed seven complaints against the UVMMC since 2010, according to an article from VT Digger. Barbara Prine, a disability lawyer with Vermont Legal Aid who lodged the complaints on behalf of five deaf patients, told the publication that in each case the patients requested an in-person interpreter, but instead were connected with one over video chat.

Federal attorneys and the Department of Health and Human Services jointly investigated multiple discrimination complaints against UVMMC, according to an announcement from the Department of Justice.

"Sign-language is a three-dimensional language, so it doesn't play well on a screen," Prine told the publication. "If you're having a conversation about someone's condition [or] you're getting informed consent for a procedure, you need an in-person interpreter." 

UVMMC agreed to provide interpreters when necessary and to provide additional training to staff members on effective communication. 

"Being able to communicate effectively with medical providers is fundamental to meaningfully accessing healthcare," U.S. Attorney Christina E. Nolan said in the announcement. "This resolution demonstrates our office's commitment to protecting the civil rights of all Vermonters and visitors to our state, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing." 

It's not uncommon for deaf patients to run into issues communicating while in the hospital. It has resulted in dozens of settlements across the country over the past several years, as providers often top lists of entities that do the worst at communicating with deaf or hard-of-hearing patients.