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February 20, 2004

Deaf talkabout: Doctors start to learn it's great to communicate

From: Belfast Telegraph - Belfast,Nothern Ireland,UK - Feb 20, 2004

By Bob McCullough

FOLLOWING last week's report on the excellent service for deaf and hard of hearing people provided by the Citizens' Advice Bureau in Bangor, I received a fax from the Northern Ireland Director of the RNID saying that similar facilities are now available in Londonderry and Craigavon.

These new specialist advice services are obviously filling a need for impartial assistance on employment, training and the many other problems that may crop up in daily life. Confidentiality is guaranteed and professional interpreters make sure there are no barriers communication.

Brian Symington, the RNID director, was intrigued by my suggestion that a similar service might be provided on medical matters, with a chosen or volunteer doctor with some training in deaf awareness, assisted by a qualified interpreter, holding a weekly morning surgery for deaf patients.

Attempts are already being made to provide basic sign language training and some awareness of the different problems caused by hearing loss for first-year medical students.

During my visits to sign classes I have met many nurses or hospital technicians such as radiologists, but doctors always seem to find it difficult to get involved.

Could the reason be that doctors are afraid of getting into situations where their skills might be offset by faulty communication?

This was valid in the bad old days when deaf patients sometimes brought relatives, or even their own children, to act as go-betweens, but it's no longer legitimate with the advent of professional interpreters and their code of confidentiality.

Finding the best way to converse in these situations is a serious matter and needs to be faced.

During my stay at Musgrave Park a few years ago for a knee operation, I was fortunate in having a surgeon prepared to take the time and write things down beforehand when the interpreter was not available, and, in the recovery room, it was lovely to have a nurse with signing skills when I was still groggy and weak.

This suited me; but the hospital staff has to deal with all kind of hearing loss in the wards and one orderly told me that they sometimes have terrible problems with infirm or elderly patients who are too weak or distressed to understand written instructions. They may have no sign language skills either or are too distracted to adjust their hearing aids properly and all communication breaks down.

It would be difficult for any doctor to make a diagnosis in such circumstances and it would certainly be wrong to do so without bringing in a qualified interpreter. Such people are expensive and there is always the temptation to use someone who can sign a bit. But under no circumstances should the doctor accept the help of a nurse or other person with only basic sign skills: this is a recipe for disaster.

However, for the ordinary round of hospital life, it's lovely to meet staff who smile or wave and have learned to speak clearly or sign simple things such as "good morning" or "sleep well".

It's even better when they learn to chat with us - and it'll be great when doctors are just as friendly and aware.

© 2004 Independent News and Media (NI) a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd