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Teleconferencing Service Results in Better Medical Care for the Deaf

Innovative program helps health care providers communicate with deaf patients, fosters compliance with federal regulations

Monday, April 15, 2002

A trip to the emergency room or physician's office is stressful for anyone. But for an individual who is deaf, it means not only dealing with a serious health problem, but also attempting to communicate details of that health problem to hearing people who typically do not know American Sign Language.

The University of Rochester Medical Center is making it easier for medical personnel to communicate quickly and effectively with deaf patients. It has launched a videoconferencing service - Strong Connections - that provides hospitals and medical offices throughout North America with medically experienced, certified interpreters for communication with deaf patients. The service uses leading-edge videoconferencing to bring the interpreter, patient and a non-signing health care provider together to improve communication during medical visits.

Strong Connections was unveiled last week at the American College of Emergency Physicians conference in Las Vegas.

The service allows communication between a deaf patient and a non-signing medical professional. This is made possible with the help of a sign-language interpreter located at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who is "brought into the room" through the use of teleconferencing equipment.

"Using two-way audio and visual communications, the interpreter observes the patient's sign language and translates into spoken English for the health care provider, avoiding incomplete or erroneous information," says Robert Pollard, director of the Deaf Wellness Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "Likewise, the provider speaks to the patient, who watches the signed translation on the monitor. The health care experience of our interpreters is a key element of Strong Connections' approach."

A one-year trial conducted with the Olean General Hospital Emergency Department and the University Primary Care (UPC) family practice, in Olean, N.Y., as well as the Erie County Medical Center Emergency Department in Buffalo, showed high levels of satisfaction among deaf patients and medical staff who used the service.

During the past year, Olean resident Raquel Kaperski frequented the UPC practice with her young son for well-child and medical visits. The ease with which she communicated with her health care provider - with the assistance of an interpreter - made a significant difference. In fact, she found the service so beneficial, she and Olean General Hospital worked with the Strong Connections team to assist her during the birth of her second son on March 30. The experience, from prenatal care to the birth and follow-up visits, was easier with interpreter involvement, she says.

"We were thrilled to be able to help Raquel during the birth," says Kathy Miraglia, manager of Interpreters Services at Strong Memorial Hospital and director of operations at Strong Connections. "It illustrates that Strong Connections can assist not only with emergency issues or physician's visits, but in every aspect of health care a patient experiences."

"Many deaf people in the United States use American Sign Language (ASL), just as most hearing individuals in this country use English or Spanish as their primary language," Miraglia adds. "ASL is an entirely different language, with its own grammar and syntax rules. For a deaf patient who is having chest pains, for instance, it is not good enough for the doctor to have him write down his symptoms in English."

Thanks to Strong Connections, hospitals and medical offices without interpreter services now have access to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Medical centers, hospitals and outpatient health care offices are mandated by government regulations to be accessible to deaf people, which means they must have procedures for quickly offering deaf patients, visitors and employees sign-language interpreter services. Many health care settings are not in compliance with these mandates.

Strong Connections has attracted more than $300,000 in funding from a variety of groups interested in health care and the deaf. NEC Foundation of America, which supports programs with national impact that apply technology to assist people with disabilities, has contributed $50,000 to support the program's release. The William G. McGowan Charitable Fund Inc. is providing a $200,000 grant. The Rochester Institute of Technology Executive MBA Program selected Strong Connections for its Capstone program, which provides expert consultation to businesses valued at $60,000. International Video Conferencing Inc. pledged more than $100,000 in specially engineered equipment, discounted leasing packages and support services for clients who subscribe to the service.

Media Contact

Karin Christensen

(585) 275-1311

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