Video conferencing streamlines ASL service

Hospitals can access it 24/7

Caregivers at Hamot Medical Center in Erie, PA, are using a video interpreting program that allows deaf patients "to be treated as quickly as anyone else," says Barbara Magee, RN, patient education coordinator.

With only two certified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters in the area — one of whom lives 30 minutes away — it had often been difficult to make sure an interpreter was available to assist deaf individuals on a timely basis, she notes.

"Our staff would get very frustrated when they attempted to call and couldn't reach the small supply of interpreters," Magee says. A Pennsylvania law effective in July 2005 requires that hospitals use only interpreters certified by the state, she adds, which further limited the options.

With DT Interpreting, a service of DeafTalk LLC, hospital staff can access ASL interpreters 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Magee says. A recent collaboration with Sony Electronics involves that company's compact, all-in-one video conferencing system, which makes use of IP-based communications technology, she notes.

"We get the DeafTalk equipment cart and take it to the bedside, where someone dials an 800 number to set up an interpreter on the screen," Magee explains. "The voice of the person calling is picked up and transferred [to the interpreter] and there is a small camera on the patient.

"The interpreter and the patient sign back and forth, and the interpreter voices what the patient has said," she says.

Most rooms in the hospital's emergency department (ED) are wired for the service, with a special jack to connect the equipment, Magee notes. If the person needing the interpreter is in an inpatient bed, she adds, a second cart can be taken from floor to floor.

The service is actually more cost-effective than using in-person interpreters, Magee says, because it can be accessed precisely when needed.

"Any time you're trying to arrange for an [in-person] interpreter, you don't always know exactly when the physician will be there, so you often need to keep the interpreter on hand for hours at a time," she points out. "Now, whenever the physician is there to give discharge instructions, discuss a surgical consent for an immediate procedure or talk about a diagnosis, the family comes in and they can talk immediately."

A community education meeting was held to help ensure that deaf individuals in the area would be comfortable with the service, Magee says. "We wanted to emphasize that we were not saying that we would not continue to find an actual interpreter, if that was what they preferred."

In some cases, deaf patients do want face-to-face interpretation, she adds, particularly if the person has a long history of working with a particular interpreter. Many times, however, they are more agreeable to using the video service because it allows a faster interpretation, Magee says.

"We just try to meet their requests and let them know we aren't mandating," she says. "Once they know it's a comfortable experience, some actually feel better not knowing the interpreter personally."

With so much emphasis in hospitals on patient safety and meeting the standards of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, Magee points out, "It's very important that patients who are deaf are treated as anyone else would be.

"They need to be able to pick pertinent information from the nursing or physician assessment so they can be given the most appropriate care," she adds. "With a form of communication that is quickly available, we're much better able to assess patient needs accurately and deliver that care in a timely manner."