For a long time, the community of deaf persons has faced significant hurdles when accessing health services due to a lack of professional medical workers who know sign language. Since communication is the key to understanding patients, there is a need for doctors and nurses to learn sign language. This will ensure effectiveness in communicating with hearing impaired patients to better understand their needs and wants.

1. To provide adequate and equal treatment

Two issues arise when communicating with hearing impaired patients without the use of sign language – can medical workers understand deaf patients and will they be able to convey information accurately?

A recent incident that happened to a deaf man who was denied an interpreter shows clearly that unequal treatment can occur if medical workers are not knowledgeable in sign language.

Due to a complaint of abuse at home, the hearing impaired man, Liu, was referred to a hospital for mental health inspection. As he could communicate well through writing, the hospital failed to bring in a sign language expert to talk to him.

As a result, he was sent to the mental hospital with only verbal consent from his family. Liu was only discharged six days later, after his sister confirmed that he did not suffer from mental illness.

This incident illustrates the importance of using sign language to communicate with hearing impaired persons to provide adequate and equal treatment. At that point of time, if the physician were able to understand sign language, he would be able to diagnose Liu accurately.

Liu would not have to rely on his family for decision-making or have to stay in the mental hospital for such a long period of time, which eventually caused him to lose his job. To second Liu’s opinion on his own well being is unfair and unjust.

2. To ensure that information is conveyed accurately

Medical workers can only give accurate diagnosis and therapy when they fully understand their patients. This can be achieved when they learn sign language to communicate with hearing impaired patients.

One of the episodes in Miami Medical Season One emphasises the practicality for medical workers to learn sign language. In a three-minute short clip, the scene shows a deaf patient receiving medical treatment in an emergency room.

As he did not know what was going on, he became very agitated. The medical team had a difficult time calming him down until a doctor realised he was deaf and communicated with him using sign language.

Seeing that sign language has helped the doctor explain the medical process more accurately and reassure the patient of his wellbeing, sign language in the medical field is indeed the key to effective communication with deaf patients.

3. To pull hearing impaired patients out of isolation

Deaf patients usually find it difficult to express themselves and show fear, mistrust and frustration when using the healthcare services.

According to Siu Tsan – founder of Silence, a Hong Kong charity that helps hearing-impaired people – deaf people have low self-esteem and are afraid that others will belittle them. This happens to the extent that they may even sign a form without knowledge of what it is about.

Ellen Thielman, a 67 year old deaf retiree, shares her frustration and loneliness when she landed in the emergency room with symptoms of stroke two years ago. The lack of sign language understanding had made it difficult for her to explain the symptoms accurately. Though she was not misdiagnosed, she often felt isolated and was often unsure of her medical status. There were two occasions when the interpreters had arrived three or four hours late when she was in the emergency room.

In such cases, it is still best for healthcare practitioners to know basic sign language as this will provide reassurance to hearing impaired patients. This will also help the medical staff to take accurate action if something goes wrong during the treatment.

The lack of understanding can also lead to lowered quality of healthcare received by the hearing impaired. Hence, learning sign language is crucial to provide adequate and accurate treatment to these patients. MIMS

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