Health care is important to everyone and everyone should have equal access to quality health care. Unfortunately, this is not always the case for Idahoans who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that approximately 20 percent (48 million) of American adults report some degree of hearing loss. In Idaho, that is upwards of 340,000 people. It’s estimated that between 5,000 and 13,000 Idahoans use sign language to communicate. Many of them have experienced significant barriers in accessing quality healthcare.

Deaf users of American Sign Language, through cultural and language barriers, are at high risk for poor health awareness and inequitable access to medical care. These barriers include inadequate assessment, not understanding the diagnosis or treatment, limited access to treatment, medication use, insufficient follow-up and poorer outcomes.

A number of reasons contribute to these disparities. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates provision of effective health communication, many healthcare settings do not provide licensed and qualified interpreters. As a result, some members of the deaf community visit their doctors less often, in part, due to limited access to direct communication.

A 2018 study conducted by Idaho State University found that non-deaf people were able to get new patient appointments at a doctors’ or dentists’ office 81 percent of the time, while deaf individuals were only given an appointment 46 percent of the time.

Deaf people need healthcare providers to take an individualized approach to communication and care. Providers need to ask the deaf person what kind of accommodation works best for them — the best communication and access to care is provided when there is a partnership between the deaf patient and healthcare staff.

In an effort to better identify the barriers our deaf community encounters and improve access to equitable and quality healthcare, Saint Alphonsus established a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Advisory Council. Meetings have enabled the development of a partnership between the hospital and deaf community, to collaborate and improve services within the healthcare system. The goal of this committee is to promote better access to healthcare, effective communication, accurate assessments, diagnoses and treatments, and improved patient/provider satisfaction and trust.

Through this collaboration, Saint Alphonsus has implemented a number of new practices:

The addition of Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) provides 24/7 access to trained, medical Interpretive Services for immediate patient concerns, until a bedside interpreter becomes available.

Upon admission, patients are identified and provided a Deaf and Hard of Hearing Kit. This kit educates staff how to interact with deaf clients and provides tools and resources to promote communication and provide care to meet patient needs.

Annual training ensures staff are aware of cultural and language differences of deaf patients and family members and how to access hospital resources to ensure effective communication and equitable care are provided.

Saint Alphonsus offers Childbirth Preparation, Breastfeeding Education and Newborn Care and Parenting Classes to deaf community members, taught directly by Deaf educators in ASL.

While this collaborative effort is still in its infancy, Saint Alphonsus is committed to leading the medical community to improve access to equitable healthcare to this underserved and vulnerable population.

Steven Snow is Executive Director of the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Elizabeth Schniedewind is a Clinical Associate Professor at Idaho State University – Meridian, and Deidre Lattin, BSN is a nurse and educator in the Saint Alphonsus Family Center

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