05 / 5 / 2016 2.30am
As part of Deaf Awareness Week, Tom Bailey and Sarah White explore the barriers to accessing healthcare experienced by people with hearing loss and people who are deafblind. They also look at simple steps that can be taken to help people look after their own health.
Tom Bailey is a research and policy officer at Action on Hearing Loss. Sarah White is a health policy officer at Sense.
Barriers to understanding healthcare information
More than 11 million people have hearing loss – that’s one in six of us. Hearing loss can affect a person’s ability to access health services, communicate with other people and look after their own health.
Many people with hearing loss also have an additional sight loss, known as deafblindness, which can lead to difficulties in communication, access to information and mobility. Across the UK, around 250,000 people are deafblind. Of these, 220,000 are aged 70 or over.
People with hearing loss can find it difficult to communicate with friends, family members and health and social care professionals. In fact, our members and supporters frequently tell us they find it difficult to visit their local GP or hospital when they need to.
For example, they can find it difficult or impossible to use the telephone to book appointments. People who are deafblind may find it difficult to read appointment letters or health advice and may need additional support to attend their appointment.
Inaccessible services can lead to missed appointments and ineffective care. Research by Action on Hearing Loss shows that after leaving their GP, more than a quarter (28 per cent) of people with hearing loss said they were unclear about their diagnosis and more than a fifth (19 per cent) were unsure about their medication.
Steps to improved communication
There are, however, some really simple steps that all health services can take to make sure people with hearing loss and people who are deafblind don’t face unnecessary and costly barriers to communication.
This can be done by providing an alternative to the telephone such as email, SMS text or text relay to book an appointment or receive test results. In the consultation room, people with hearing loss and people who are deafblind may benefit from different forms of communication support such as a hearing loop system, a British sign language (BSL) interpreter or a deafblind manual interpreter.
Care staff should also follow simple tips such as facing people when speaking to them or by collecting them from the waiting room. Interpreters should also be booked in advance to make sure people who use BSL or deafblind manual interpretation can participate fully in discussions about their care.
People who are deafblind may need information in braille or large print and people who use assistive technology or equipment such as screen readers may benefit from appointment letters via email.
Many of these changes are low cost and easy to implement. The most important thing is to work with patients; find out what they need and ensure their needs are met.
Accessible Information Standard
As members of NHS England’s Accessible Information Advisory group, we’ve also been heavily involved in the development of the Accessible Information Standard, which clearly sets out what NHS and adult social care providers must do to make sure their services are accessible for people who have a disability and/or sensory loss.
The standard, which becomes a legal requirement from the 31 July 2016, establishes a consistent approach to make sure people with a disability and/or sensory loss can communicate well and understand information they are given.
NHS England and Health Education England have produced an e-learning module to help care staff learn more about the Accessible Information Standard and meet its requirements.
We have also produced practical guidance for health and social professionals on making their services accessible for people with hearing loss and people who are deafblind. To find out more, please see the external links on the page.