Apr 162010

Emergency doctors at Tucson Medical Center will now be able to communicate with deaf patients through the help of off-site translators using American Sign Language.

Tucson-based CyraCom International Inc. has negotiated a contract with TMC to provide a video-based interpretation service.

Although hospitals are required to provide translations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it can take time for an interpreter to arrive in person.

CyraCom says its Video Relay Interpretation (VRI) service will cut down on wasted time and the cost of interpreters.

The system is similar to other video-chat services, but uses high-definition images to ensure the gestures that make up American Sign Language (ASL) are clear, through a secure Internet connection that meets hospital privacy guidelines.

A webcam links up to CyraCom’s interpreters based in Tucson and Nogales and in Las Cruces, N.M.

VRI allows the doctor to ask questions or provide instructions, while the interpreter translates everything into American Sign Language for the patient.

“I used to do on-site interpretation in hospitals on emergency basis and on regular assignments and found there was so much inefficiency in the system when a deaf patient would show up at an emergency room,” said SueAnne McCreery, ASL coordinator at CyraCom.

Patients would have to wait for care, but also for interpreters. “There were nights where I would be there for six hours, but interpreting for two minutes here, five minutes there, twenty minutes. I might do a half-hour of work, but I was paid for six hours time.”

And since many companies charge for a two-hour minimum, the cost of even short clinic visits can be problematic. According to Melissa Moreno, the nurse manager at TMC’s emergency department, the cost for an on-site translator can be as much as $2,000for a full visit and averages $400 for two-hour visits.

The video-chat system means a single interpreter is able to serve more people. And ASL interpreters, who are licensed by the state, are in high demand – “there aren’t enough of us out there for the need,” said McCreery.

“In the past we’ve made arrangements that work, but it takes a lot of logistics to arrange,” said Michael Letson, spokesman for Tucson Medical Center. “”We’re just trying to communicate with our patients.”

“In an emergency, speaking to a patient can keep us from doing unnecessary tests,” added Jessica Grubb, a patient relations representative at TMC.

Letson said this is a service the hospital provides, and deaf and hearing-impaired patients will not be charged for access. The system will become “the standard of care” for patients with hearing difficulties, said Moreno.

However, in some circumstances a live interpreter can still be requested, especially when the patient cannot clearly see the screen.

Although a VRI system can expedite the process, it does have flaws, some interpreters say. The nature of the two-dimensional image can mean subtle gestures are hard to read, said Tom Satterlee, an interpreter for Tucson’s Community Outreach Program for the Deaf.

Another reason he says it’s preferable to use an interpreter in person: “Most likely I’ll know who that guy is, and that lets me be more equipped to understand their issues.” While the VRI can be a replacement in the short-term for patients when an interpreter is either on the way or unavailable, Satterlee said, “it can’t replace the comfort a person brings.”

But in outlying communities, in-person ASL interpreters may not be available, said McCreery.

“We’re a deaf-friendly city,” she said, “but smaller communities that don’t have access to lots of ASL interpreters are just really stuck if they’ve got patients, but no one in town who can provide services.”

– Thanks to NVRC and Paul Ingram, The Arizona Daily  4/16/10, http://azstarnet.com/business/local/article_e36dfd49-953d-559b-9761-69d0f25427d2.html.