Virtual interpreters help deaf hospital patients

April 3, 2011 6:50:46 AM PDT
Communication between physician and patient is essential, but when the patient is deaf, it's not always easy to get interpreters.

However, there is a solution. The Deaf Access Program at Mt. Sinai Hospital is making health-related communications available 24/7 to deaf and hard of hearing patients at several hospitals throughout the Chicago area. It's cost effective as well as manageable.

Dr. Leslie Zun is the chair of Mt. Sinai Emergency Medicine Department. He examines deaf patients in the emergency room by communicating through IVIN, or the Illinois Video Interpreter Network.

"You know, they have to come in whenever they have an emergency and we have to be ready to provide care for them, and I need to know what the problem is and I need to explain to them what's going on," Zun said.

Using a computer and camera connected to the Deaf Access service's interpreter pool, a sign language interpreter appears for the deaf patient to see.

"It's kind of like a Skype system where it has a camera view and a camera of the interpreter on the other end and the interpreter can be anywhere, could be here at Mt. Sinai, could be anywhere in the country interpreting for us," Zun said.

Terri Hedding is the manager of Mt. Sinai's Deaf Access Program. She says this system is cost effective.

"Because when you compare the use of the IVIN machine compared to an in-person interpreter, you have an in-person interpreter that has to have a 2 hour minimum, they may stay only 5 to 10 minutes, they may be waiting a very long time and you're paying them to sit. On IVIN, you are paying for the actual interpreting time and there is no minimum -- you pay by the minute," Hedding said.

Hedding also says the interpreters are experienced.

"Our interpreters have medical specialties. They have medical expertise so many of our patients absolutely love the system. They come in with confidence knowing they're going to get a skilled interpreter and that makes them feel calm, they have less anxiety with their medical experience," Hedding said.

Druilla Ronchen recalls some medical communications issues.

"I've had a hard time getting interpreters in the past. Sometimes you have to wait, sometimes even as long as two hours for an interpreter to arrive," Ronchen said.

"You can't really use a phone to call an interpreter, like you would for Spanish or Polish interpreters, when you have a deaf patient, so really the only way to communicate with them is through the IVIN system because it's audio and visual," Zun said.

To be part of the IVIN system, hospitals need to be members of the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council.

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