Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing: Tips for Working With Your Doctor

If you are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH), it is important to have an interpreter when visiting your doctor. This is especially true if you speak sign language. A person who can sign to you what the doctor is saying will help you communicate better. You may want an interpreter even if you read lips and use spoken language. You may not be familiar with some of the terms your doctor uses. This can make it more difficult to read his or her lips.

If you are DHH, your doctor or health care provider must provide a way to communicate with you. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), health care providers have a duty to furnish communication aids and services to people who have disabilities. This does not mean they must hire a person to interpret. They could use a transcription service, like CART (a computer-aided transcription service). This is true even if you aren’t the patient. You are entitled to communication aids even if you are a DHH parent taking your hearing child to the doctor.

Path to improved health

Before you visit your doctor, consider your entire visit as you develop your communication plan. Think about how you prefer to communicate with everyone you may see, including the:

  • receptionist
  • nurse
  • doctor
  • lab technician
  • X-ray/radiology technician.

In the waiting room

If you have trouble hearing, tell the receptionist that calling your name isn’t the best way to tell you that the doctor is ready to see you. Ask him or her to come get you or get your attention visually when the doctor is ready for you.

If you are deaf and use sign language

  • Good communication with your doctor is important. If you prefer to have a sign language interpreter, ask for one when you make your appointment.
  • You may want to ask a friend or relative to be your interpreter. But you should know that interpreters should be trained. Using a friend or family member could put you at risk if they misinterpret something during your visit. Also, your doctor may need to ask you personal questions. Make sure you are comfortable enough to answer those questions through your interpreter.
  • You can help your doctor find the right interpreter by explaining the type of sign language you use (American Sign Language, Signed English, Pidgin Signed English, Visual-Gestural Communication, or the sign language of another country). If the interpreter is certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, you can feel sure about confidentiality.

If you are hard-of-hearing, or if you are deaf and rely on spoken language

  • If you are hard-of-hearing you may feel embarrassed sometimes. You may feel awkward saying that you didn’t understand what was said. Sometimes you might pretend to hear something you didn’t. You may feel that it isn’t right to interrupt your doctor. But to get good medical care, try not to be shy about your communication needs when you visit your doctor.
  • Ask for a quiet, well-lit room, without glare. It will also help if the room has curtains and carpets. Ask the doctor to speak clearly, to face you, to keep his or her mouth visible, and to repeat and rephrase as needed.
  • If you need a procedure or exam, complete your conversation in a quieter room before moving to the exam room.
  • If your doctor will be wearing a facemask for a procedure, you should ask to be told what you need to know ahead of time. You won’t be able to read lips through a facemask.
  • If your speech is difficult for others to understand, ask the doctor to be patient. Take your time. Feel free to write or to type on a computer or other keyboard if you prefer.
  • If you need a Cued Speech interpreter or an oral interpreter, request one when you make your appointment.

Understanding what your doctor tells you

  • You have a right to understand everything your doctor tells you about your health. You may want to ask the doctor to allow you to repeat sentences back. This way, you can check to see if you heard correctly.
  • If your doctor uses a word that you don’t know, ask for the word to be written down and explained clearly. If you need it, ask for a drawing or a model.
  • Don’t be afraid that you’re bothering the doctor with these questions. If it would help you, ask for written information about your condition, your medicines, or your treatment choices.

Assistive devices

If you wear hearing aids, take the time to adjust them for the best possible sound. If you use a personal amplification system, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor to wear the microphone.

Things to consider

Planning for a visit to your doctor can help make sure you have good communication. But what if you unexpectedly need to visit the doctor in an emergency situation? Hospitals and emergency departments are required to provide communication aids. But these aids are not always readily available. Your only communication tool may be writing notes until an interpreter arrives. Waiting for an interpreter can take hours and is a common complaint among people who are DHH. Some hospitals keep a sign language interpreter on staff. But most hospitals keep interpreters on call or use video remote interpreting.

Questions for your doctor

  • What kind of communication services do you provide?
  • Can you provide written medical instructions?
  • Can you provide a written description of my disease or condition?
  • Can my interpreter stay in the room during my exam or treatment?

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