How important is effective communication in healthcare? Do you need to be able to communicate effectively with your doctor(s)? What about communicating with your health insurance provider? For many of us, if not most, it is vitally important to be able to communicate to your doctor what is ailing you, where it hurts, to describe how you are feeling. It is just as important for your doctor to be able to communicate how to heal those ailments, proper ways to take your medication, and what all those big, scary, medical terms mean. For individuals that communicate in a language different than their doctor, communication may be a significant barrier to their healthcare.
Members of the Deaf culture “speak” a language that is often misunderstood. American Sign Language, or ASL, the 3rd most utilized language in the U.S. behind English and Spanish, is often seen as English spoken with the hands. In reality ASL is vastly different than English and is closer to the French language in its grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. This difference in language use can be intimidating to both Deaf individuals seeking healthcare services and those that provide healthcare services. Despite ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and state laws protecting the rights of Deaf individuals seeking equal communication access in healthcare, too often those rights are not provided for. Frequently, interpreters are not provided for medical appointments, the right to choose the most effective method of communicating with healthcare providers is not honored, and unrealistic expectations are placed on the Deaf patient.
ASL is a visual language, not a written language, and for many members of the Deaf culture written English is a second or altogether foreign language. Still, many healthcare providers expect their Deaf patients to be able to read and write notes in English as their main method of communicating during healthcare interactions. This is similar to a person being expected to receive their healthcare through written notes in Japanese despite not knowing the Japanese language.
It is imperative that healthcare providers seek opportunities to learn about the culture they are serving, to learn about the language and communication needs of the individuals they serve, and to empower their patients to choose the best methods of communication in the healthcare setting. It is equally as important for members of the Deaf community to self-advocate for their needs and rights in receiving healthcare and to get involved with their communities, to volunteer for their cities’ boards, and to have a voice.
Working together, healthcare providers and members of any minority cultural and linguistic group can overcome barriers to ensure equal access to healthcare and increased understanding of unique cultural and communication needs.
This article was submitted by Elijah Buchholz, LPC, Director of Deaf Services for the State of Missouri Department of Mental Health. He is a guest author for Lee’s Summit’s Health Education Advisory Board, which is a Mayor-appointed, volunteer board that promotes and advocates community health by assessing health issues, educating the public and government agencies, developing plans to address health issues, encouraging partnerships and evaluating the outcomes. “Health is a state of complete mental, physical, and social well being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.” World Health Organization