Why the nation's deaf struggle with medical care

When you're in the hospital or at a physician's office, the last thing you want is to have trouble understanding what the healthcare provider is doing. But for the millions of U.S. adults who have hearing trouble, this struggle is reality, according to The Sacramento Bee.

Here are five things to know about the nation's deaf receiving medical care.

1. Approximately 37 million American adults have trouble hearing, according to a 2006 CDC study. This includes those who have been deaf from infancy, as well as older adults who have experienced hearing loss. It also encompasses everything from partial to complete deafness.

2. To understand their healthcare provider, the deaf have to depend on often unreliable means. In a best-case scenario, deaf patients are provided with sign language interpreters or auxiliary aids such as closed-caption devices. But these aren't always available, leaving patients to rely on lip-reading, scribbling notes to providers or asking family members to interpret.

However, these services are considered some of the least effective ways to communicate. For instance, it would be impossible for patients to lip-read if their provider's face is covered with a surgical mask. Handwritten notes can be hard to decipher, and family members may not relay the proper diagnosis because they don't want to be bearers of bad news.

3. Legal acts have tried to remove the deaf population's barriers to care. The Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990, calls for public entities to give equal access to those with hearing, speech or vision impairments. Although a 2010 update to the ADA added that auxiliary devices should be used, it notes that these devices should not place an "undue" financial burden on the public entity.

Additionally, in hopes of providing the nation's disabled with better medical care, the Department of Justice created the Barrier-Free Health Care Initiative in 2012. But even this has resulted in approximately 36 cases of a lack of interpreter services for the deaf.

4. While some hospitals work hard to provide interpreter services, others are more lax. For instance, Sacramento, Calif.-based UC Davis Medical Center has a sign language interpreter on staff, and Sacramento, Calif.-based Mercy General Hospital uses a third party agency to bring in interpreters when necessary.

However, not all hospitals invest as much in interpreters or other tools to support the hearing impaired. Last year, two deaf patients alleged Colton, Calif.-based Arrowhead Regional Medical Center of denying them sign language interpreters. The medical center had to pay $100,000 for the settlement and, when necessary, agree to coordinate video communication services with an interpreter.

5. Hearing-impaired patients are frustrated by the lack of help and assistance. "I was furious, upset and a bit traumatized," said Ellen Thielman, a 67-year-old deaf patient who visited Sacramento, Calif.-based Mercy General Hospital's emergency room last year and had to wait between three and four hours for an interpreter. "I felt really alone."

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