A lack of face-to-face interpreters is meaning deaf patients are missing key operations and being informed of serious medical issues – such as a miscarriage – via a tablet computer, the Victoria Derbyshire programme has learned. Many of those affected say they want to be treated as equals by the NHS.
When Jeff Parfitt became distressed during a biopsy endoscopy, he wanted an interpreter to explain what was happening. But there were not any available. He panicked, pulling the endoscope – a tube with a tiny camera on the end – out of his body.
It was a vital procedure, but it had to be postponed. Mr Parfitt, who was born deaf, was left shaken.
The hospital where Mr Parfitt is regularly receiving treatment for his lymphoma has started using video interpreters, on a system called Sign Live.
It allows users to pick up a tablet, dial a number and instantly be connected to a video interpreter.
Developers say the video-based BSL Services is “life-changing” and can offer “inclusion, accessibility and equality” to the deaf community.
But some British Sign Language users with serious health conditions say NHS hospitals are using the service in inappropriate situations, and that they are routinely experiencing technical problems – sometimes during serious appointments.
This has been the case for Mr Parfitt in the past, when the system has failed mid-conversation, making him “quite frustrated and angry”.
The 49-year-old says that even if the system was reliable, he would rather communicate with someone in person.
“I can see their body language. I can get that message clearer,” he explains to us via a face-to-face interpreter.
When you have a flat message [on a tablet], there’s no emotion there.”
Many sign language users prefer to use an interpreter of their choice for a medical appointment – often because they are discussing sensitive information.
The face-to-face interpreter Mr Parfitt previously used, Rebbecca Aust, was the one who told him he had cancer – and then helped him pass the news on to his family.
‘State of panic’
In contrast, one sign language user – who wished to remain anonymous – says she was told she had miscarried via a tablet.
“It was the first time I’d ever had an iPad interpreter and I didn’t really understand what was going on,” she says. “I was in such a state of panic.”
Others have contacted us saying they have never been offered a face-to-face or video interpreter and have to rely on family to communicate with doctors – or writing things down on a piece of paper.
The British Deaf Association says this can lead to medical terminology and diagnoses being wrongly communicated.