Skip to content

Signing would greatly improve deaf people’s GP experiences

Deaf people have serious difficulties accessing basic healthcare services and their needs are being ignored.

Thirty per cent of deaf people in the UK are unemployed, permanently sick or disabled, according to the 2009 GP patient survey. This is three times higher than the general population. Fundamental issues lie at the heart of this statistic. Deaf people have serious difficulties accessing basic healthcare services and their needs are being ignored.

At SignHealth we continually hear anecdotal tales of appalling practice in the way deaf people are treated on the NHS, but it’s hard to get the exact detail. Some of our worst fears have been confirmed through a mixture of our own access report, statistics from the GP patient survey and anecdotal evidence.

Deaf people are facing constant difficulty with telephone appointment booking systems, verbal prompts when their doctor is ready to see them, and rarely have a clear understanding of their diagnosis and treatment. We have also found examples of GPs refusing to book interpreters because they cost too much and people not understanding their medication and taking the wrong amount.

Waiting times for interpreters in GP appointments is a massive problem. At the moment many people have to wait weeks to book a sign language interpreter who can make sure the patient and clinician are able to clearly communicate. There is an obvious link between these delays and poorer general health.

Some doctors argue that interpreters are unnecessary because a member of the family can interpret but this has clear confidentiality issues. You only have to hear one story about a deaf parent being given a diagnosis of terminal cancer through the sign language translation of their eight-year-old child to appreciate quite how wrong this is.

We recognise that there are not enough sign language interpreters and bookings can be difficult, but simple technologies are available to help.

We are urging GPs and hospitals to start using the online sign language interpreting service SignTranslate. This means that deaf people can have same day appointments with their doctor connecting via a remote interpreter at the click of a mouse.

There is also a strong cost-saving argument to solving these communication problems. Bad communication means deaf people have to see their GP on many more occasions than their hearing peers. Estimates put the number of additional appointments made by deaf people at around 625,000. With an average appointment costing £25, this equates to £15.6m each year. Research to date suggests that spending a fraction of this on making services more accessible will save the NHS millions.

The GP patient survey shows that deaf people are still the most misunderstood patient group. We can see that deafness has a profound impact on people’s wellbeing and general contribution to society and this is significantly worse than other minority groups.

At SignHealth we’re committed to highlighting these inequalities and bringing about improvements. Later this year, we’ll be leading a collaborative study into the health of deaf people. This will be the largest piece of research ever carried out in this field and we urge deaf people to register now on to bring about the changes that are so desperately needed. •

Steve Powell is chief executive of SignHealth, the healthcare charity for deaf people

Source: The Guardian

2 thoughts on “Signing would greatly improve deaf people’s GP experiences”

  1. Currently my GP has been reported to the primary care trust here because of an unwillingness to provide BSL support to my deaf partner.  Apprently he thinks we are ‘unhelpful’ because we won’t allow him to lobby our hearing relatives to do it for free.

     He claims most deaf patients bring their own family support and prefer that, I said I didn’t care two hoots what other deaf did, our rights to proper support was written in law and he was breaking it.  Perhaps what passes for deaf represntation will heed my call for the health authorities to REFUSE to allow family to support deaf people, because

     (A) Most CODA’s  are not sufficiently sign aware and passed no exams in it, and  a number are BELOW age of consent so not viable.  It is ridiculous a deaf woman uses an 8yr child as a translator.  NO she hasn’t that right.
     (B) The NHS can still be sued if a relative makes a mistake conveying information so in their own interests, 
    (C)  This allows relatives to ‘take over’ the deaf person’s health care and make their decisions for them, and
    (D) Using family support chops the demand for signed support to near zero by default.

    Deaf people are architects of their own poor support. 

    The only concession I would suggest is a relative CAN attend a deaf person as family support,  but NOT act as an interpreter unless qualified so to do.  Even being qualified raises aspects of bias.  You would think deaf people would want neutral support so they can make their own decisions…. some of them family might not agree with !

    It has to be said the BDA were obstructing my suggestions to the health authority, claiming I was trying to take deaf choice away, in reality I was enforcing that choice with qualified alternatives,  and ensuring demand, this demand would create MORE interpreters, the very thing deaf say they want !  No wonder the BDA is dead in the water.

  2. More people should follow MM’s example and demand better services. Only then can real change take place. The law is there to protect deaf people’s rights, but we hear stories like this far too often and when translation is offered it almost always means waiting ages to see a doctor. 
    SignHealth is campaigning for better healthcare for deaf people and we absolutely agree that the solutions need to come from the community. We need to know what’s happening for deaf people around the UK and what needs to improve in hospitals, GP surgeries and all aspects of healthcare.  
    How long is an acceptable waiting time for face-to-face translation? Would live translation on a computer screen be better than waiting for face-to-face? Should we concentrate on training more BSL translators? Are you happy for members of your family to translate, or do you agree with MM that this just gives doctors an excuse not to use qualified translators?  
    As with most things to do with the NHS there’s no simple answer and choices will have to be made, but we can make things better if we work together. Please join our nationwide survey at or email us your thoughts and we will put pressure on the Government on your behalf.

    MM – we’d really like to talk to you about your experiences and use your story  as one example of unnacceptable service. If you’d like to get in touch please email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.