The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the move towards a digital lifestyle in many areas of our lives, from doing our jobs remotely to attending events online, and one significant change has been in the way medical appointments are conducted.
In England, for some time there has been a longstanding aim to harness digital technology to deliver health care but, until last year, progress had been slow. Then, when the pandemic hit, many GP practices took a digital-first approach and turned to video consultations to reduce patient flow through facilities and limit Covid-19 transmission.
Statistics show that in April 2021, 90%of GP consultations were remote compared with 31% in 2019 and now, despite life beginning to return to ‘normal’ following the vaccine rollout, it is clear that the shift towards remote care is here to stay.
In June 2020, a survey of over 2,000 GPs showed that 88% of them felt that greater use of remote consultations should be retained in the longer-term. Not only does it allow GPs to facilitate more appointments, it also reduces the need to travel and improves the patient experience for many.
However, whilst the move to more digitally-led healthcare has been welcomed and worked well for some, it has excluded others.
Care for Deaf patients
11 million people living in the UK are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and over 150,000 of them use British Sign Language [BSL] to communicate. As a result, Deaf people/BSL users are more likely to experience digital exclusion and reduced quality of treatment with the radical shift towards remote care.
Inequalities when accessing healthcare services or information is unfortunately not new for the Deaf community. Deaf individuals are more likely to suffer ill health than other people, simply because it is harder for them to use the health services that many of us take for granted. They are twice as likely to have high blood pressure, four times more likely to develop diabetes and generally have a reduced life expectancy.
A recent NHS report in the UK showed 44% of Deaf patients found the last contact with their GP or health centre to be difficult or very difficult, compared with only 17% from a general population patient survey.
Furthermore, the results of a consultation involving 121 Deaf, Deafblind or Hard of Hearing residents in the UK showed they faced hardships in accessing many areas of the NHS.
Basic tasks like making a routine appointment proved difficult for many Deaf people who struggled to book appointments unless they physically visited their doctor’s practice. They were also unable to book an emergency appointment as they did not know how to do so.
Access to quality care is a right
Under the Human Rights Act, adequate access to health services is a civil right, meaning health practitioners and staff must establish effective communication with Deaf patients as part of their human rights, however many are reportedly unaware of Deaf culture and the health needs of Deaf people.
Practitioners often believe that lip reading and note taking provide effective health communication, when in fact they are ineffective methods for health care conversations and carry huge risks of misinterpretation and even misdiagnosis.
As remote GP appointments become the norm, practitioners must ensure provisions, such as BSL interpreters, are in place to make consultations fully accessible for Deaf patients.
Bespoke video solutions
Use of bespoke video interpretation solutions grew dramatically throughout the pandemic. In fact, Sign Solutions saw a 600% increase in demand for our BSL video interpreting service via StarLeaf, and also brought BSL interpreters into other preferred platforms such as Attend Anywhere, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Go To Meeting and AccruRX.
Video appointments do not work for all, however they offer a flexible option that is welcomed by both clinicians an patients and, despite the volume of in-person medical appointments now on the rise once again, the demand for video interpretation services remains.
Bespoke video interpretation solutions can easily be implemented into remote appointments for NHS Trusts and GP practices to seamlessly remove the communication barriers between practitioners and Deaf patients. Interpreters can be booked at the click of a button to help clinicians and healthcare practitioners improve patient outcomes and reduce backlogs by delivering remote care more efficiently both during the pandemic and after it.
For example, Conflab Health from Flabba uses the InterpretersLive! interpreters to deliver secure, reliable and easy-to-use virtual one-way and two-way patient consultations to the NHS with a complete remote care workflow.
The system, available from the DVOVC framework enables safer, more efficient interactions between patients and clinicians, and provides capabilities like auto-transcription, virtual waiting rooms and one-way HD video for patient triage, to reduce the backlog of appointment demand.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced us rapidly into new ways of working and, whilst there will always be a requirement for in-person medical appointments in some capacity, the future is very much digital.
Remote consultations offer advantages to many patients and practitioners, but for those who are less empowered to use remote consulting or digital solutions there is a risk of increasing inequality of healthcare provision.
Healthcare providers must take the time to prioritise the needs of Deaf patients if they are to deliver an optimal level of care. By embracing new ways of working and utilising technology that is built with Deaf patients in mind, clinicians can break down the barriers to care and ensure Deaf patients receive the best experience and outcome possible.
Clare Vale is managing director of Sign Solutions