By Donal Diffin, Social Care Commissioning Lead for Older People, Adults, and Physical and Sensory Disability Services, Social Care and Children, Health and Social Care Board
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives. We are all working and communicating in different ways. We’re learning, adapting, and figuring out how to stay safe but also how to maintain our connections with one another.
For Deaf people, society’s response to the pandemic has created new obstacles not just in everyday life but also in terms of their equal access to Health and Social Care.
At the start of the outbreak, many services switched to telephone contact only. While this was done to protect everyone through social distancing, there was a risk that it would severely limit both the Deaf community’s access to services, and the ability of our staff to communicate effectively with Deaf people.
To overcome this barrier, the Department for Health and the Department for Communities have funded a remote sign language interpreting service.
Provided by Interpreter Now, it enables British Sign Language (BSL) and Irish Sign Language (ISL) users to access NHS111 and all non-emergency Health and Social Care services during the pandemic.
It also allows health and social care staff to access a remote interpreter to support their clinical assessment and care of Deaf people.
The service is free at point of use and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All of the BSL and ISL interpreters are qualified, registered, and highly experienced.
The service includes two elements:
• Video Relay Service (VRS) and
• Video Remote Interpreting (VRI)
The Video Relay Service (VRS) was introduced to ensure immediate access to telephone services. It allows Deaf people to connect with sign language interpreters online via video link.
The Deaf person asks the interpreter – using sign language – to make a call on their behalf, and to interpret for them. In response, all the HSC staff member has to do is answer the ‘phone as normal.
VRS can also support communication in the other direction: health and social care staff can use the service to contact a Deaf service user who is registered with Interpreter Now by ringing 03333 446012 and asking for them by name. The remote interpreter answers the phone call and then contacts the Deaf person via video link. The conversation is then relayed via sign language to the Deaf person, with the interpreter speaking aloud to the healthcare professional on the phone.
VRS can be used to:
• Organise a GP appointment,
• Make an outpatient booking,
• Translate medical advice received in the post, or
• Call a pharmacy.
With Video Remote Interpreting (VRI), the Deaf person and health and social care practitioner are in the same location. They access an interpreter online via secure video link (e.g. a tablet, smart phone, or computer). It’s like the interpreter is in the room.
Currently, VRI is not widely available in health and social care settings on our devices, and we are working urgently to resolve a number of IT issues. When the service becomes more widely available, we will share that information. In the meantime, Deaf people can access VRI using their own devices and connecting via WiFi (where available) or 4G mobile signal.
The VRI service can be used for things like:
• Short HSC appointments such as a GP appointment,
• A pharmacy consultation, or
• Arrival at an Emergency Department until a face to face interpreter can be sourced.
The service went live in April 2020 and since then almost 400 people have registered to use it. The feedback has been really positive: the service has the potential to improve Deaf service users’ experiences and outcomes in relation to health and social care.
This is a learning curve for all of us: Deaf people are getting used to the new approach, and we are working with the Deaf community and colleagues to ensure the necessary support, equipment, and infrastructure is put in place.
While COVID-19 has created significant challenges for the Deaf community, it is our collective responsibility to maximise this important new opportunity to enable their equal access to our services.
For more information, visit Interpreter Now at: www.interpreternow.co.uk/hscni