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How the health service is failing Deaf people

Posted by on March 31, 2014

SignHealth reportBy Jon Kudlick, director of membership, marketing and communications at the Society of Biology and trustee of SignHealth

Imagine you are in hospital about to have an operation. For most of us, that’s a stressful enough situation in itself. Now imagine that because all the GPs, consultants and nurses do not speak your language, you don’t really know what is wrong with you, what the operation entails, and how the operation will affect you afterwards. Suddenly those levels of stress are off the scale, and this is a far too common experience for many Deaf people.

Last week in Westminster, the charity SignHealth launched their report, ‘Sick of it – how the health service is failing Deaf people’. Funded by the BIG Lottery Fund, the research behind the report is the first big study of its kind anywhere in the world, and has taken five years to complete. For many years, SignHealth has been raising awareness of the issues faced by Deaf people when trying to access health services. What this ground breaking research shows is the huge impact that these issues have had on the mental and physical health of Deaf patients, as well as the enormous cost to the NHS, estimated at £30m a year.

The ‘Sick of it’ report reveals that Deaf people are twice as likely to have high blood pressure and four times as likely to be showing signs of diabetes. Yet, they are generally just as active as hearing people, with a similar level of healthy diet, and they tend to drink less alcohol and smoke less. The report explains that this is down to a combination of one or more of the following factors: poor diagnosis, poor treatment, bad access, communication issues, and lack of information. One example is that 70% of Deaf people who haven’t been to their GP recently didn’t go mainly because there was no interpreter provided.

This is a huge problem, and yet the solution is so simple – GPs just need to book interpreters, and this can be done using an online solution if a face-to-face interpreter is not available. Other ‘prescriptions’ are suggested in the report, such as providing online booking for appointments, and routinely recording data on whether a person is Deaf, and their preferred method of communication.

In the end, it’s the human stories that really bring it all home, including Sandra who had to go through post-natal depression twice before a deaf counsellor was provided, or Neil whose blood disorder was misdiagnosed as depression. In both cases, their experience would have been far less traumatic if communication services had been provided in good time. The report launch was a real success. However, everyone involved knows that this is only the beginning of the work. It is definitely time for change and with this new research, there is a real hope that the impetus to change will at last be there.

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