Andy Palmer: GPs should have access to video interpreting or STTR on the road. As standard

Posted on July 22, 2014

I confess, I’ve done it. I did it more than once and I wouldn’t have had it any other way at the time. In the same circumstances I would do it again.

To what am I confessing? Interpreting for my deaf family in medical situations, of course.

Some people say that the reason why sign language interpreter provision in the NHS for deaf people is so overlooked is because caring family members are so keen to do the job –  I can see why that could be true.

I have never interpreted at a routine GP appointment – only at emergencies. I wont go into detail here but I have stood and relayed doctors questions and the answers in life or death situations. I use the term ‘life or death’ with strictest accuracy.

And the reason why? Because there was no choice. Either I did it or the doctor would begin to s p e a k  v e r y  s l o w l y and run the risk of adding a dangerous communication problem into an already heightened or critical situation while I watched on.

I would challenge anyone who says that they would do different. That they would insist on waiting, possibly hours, for an interpreter to arrive if they could easily step in. Especially when a loved ones health is on the line.

It’s an odd position to be in, stood at the end of a hospital bed, interpreting to a deaf family member in a critical situation. Its unnatural.

Having the benefit of knowing what standards are expected of interpreters, those of impartiality and professionalism, I do my best to demonstrate those attributes but I know that I’m no professional.

Any emotions I feel must be kept in check, even though panic and worry are coursing through my veins.

I also know that above all, if my family member had the choice, it would never have been me in the role of interpreter. I would have been protected from that burden. Their moral code had been violated by the process but neither of us had any choice.

Recently, I was called upon to interpret for a signer during a visit from their GP. I happened to be there by chance and she agreed that I interpret, for that was preferable to having no signer at all, but still far from ideal. What would have happened if I wasn’t there, I wondered?

What also troubled me was that the GP had knowledge that this person was deaf and needed an interpreter but no interpreter was present or even requested. Why?

In any case, given the urgent nature of the call-out, it would have been almost impossible to find one anyway. Once again, I did the job, but it really doesn’t have to be this way.

The NHS budget of billions can have an answer to this problem. Video interpreting services and remote speech to text systems mean that there is simply no reason why deaf people and medical professionals cannot communicate in emergency medical situations, without the need for family to be there. Is setting up a system like this for the NHS really beyond the wit of our health chiefs?

And what of deaf people who have neither an interpreter nor family members available to aid communication? It’s guesswork on the part of the medical professionals and that puts lives at risk.

There are providers on the market who can do the job. Tablet computers can connect to an interpreter or STTR reporter and establish clear communication between deaf patients and medical professionals, probably in HD, probably instantly. Ambulance crews and GP’s should keep iPads in their vehicles charged and ready to go. If the patient is deaf, switch on the ipad and tap the app. It can be as simple as that.

The sooner this happens the better. The dignity of all deaf patients, no matter what communication style they use, can and should be respected in emergency medical situations. Not only that, but if any question a doctor asks a patient is worth asking, its also worth having the right answer. Especially in an emergency.

By Andy Palmer, Deputy Editor. 

Andy is Chairman of the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society and teaches sign language in primary schools. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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