URMC to Show How Telemedicine May Benefit Deaf Patients

March 31, 1999

The benefits of telemedicine technology in the care of deaf patients will be demonstrated at a lecture on March 31, from 10:30 a.m. to noon, in the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Whipple Auditorium, room 2-6424.

Demonstrations will include direct provision of mental health services by a sign-fluent psychiatrist, and the "virtual" presence of a sign language interpreter facilitating communication between a deaf patient and an emergency room physician. In both cases, telemedicine links featuring computers with video conferencing software will be used to allow deaf patients to communicate directly with their providers using American Sign Language.

The lecture and demonstration is being hosted by the Medical Center’s department of psychiatry and will feature Dr. Barry Critchfield and Dr. Jill Afrin, from the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, and Dr. Robert Pollard of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Few deaf patients around the U.S. have access to sign-fluent medical and mental health care providers, according to Pollard. Even access to interpreter services in healthcare settings is limited, especially in rural areas. When interpreters are available, deaf patients must often wait considerable lengths of time for them to arrive at appointments. The consequences of inadequate or delayed communication between a doctor and a deaf patient can be serious, even life-threatening.

Telemedicine technology offers a means for sign-fluent providers to reach out to deaf consumers who otherwise could not access such care. It can offer immediate, 24-hour access to interpreter services from any medical facility with the proper equipment.

The University of Rochester Medical Center already provides mental health services by sign-fluent clinicians, teaches medical students and practicing physicians about healthcare issues with the deaf population, and employs full and part-time sign language interpreters with specialized training and experience in healthcare. The Medical Center aims to be a leading provider of telemedicine healthcare interpreting services and telepsychiatry for deaf patients.

Critchfield and Afrin pioneered the application of telepsychiatry services to deaf patients. Afrin used to drive hundreds of miles each week to visit small numbers of deaf patients at community mental health centers throughout South Carolina. In 1995, Critchfield and Afrin piloted the use of video conference links between Afrin’s home in Charleston and three distant community mental health centers, as a substitute for her extensive travel. These telepsychiatry links allowed Afrin to meet her deaf patients "on line" and assess or counsel them directly in sign language, saving time and money. This also allowed Afrin to serve many more deaf patients. South Carolina’s telepsychiatry services for deaf consumers have now expanded to over 20 sites and won the enthusiastic support of consumers, administrators and professionals.

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