VT Digger | July 23, 2017

Date: 
July 23, 2017

Seven Years of Disability Discrimination Complaints Target UVM Medical Center

Julie Hay arrived at the emergency department of the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington just before midnight on July 15, 2015.

Hay, who was 50 at the time, had just experienced a heart attack. When she arrived in the emergency department, she was upset, found the environment overwhelming, and had difficulty communicating.

While Hay has a host of conditions that complicate her health care — high blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease, migraines, thyroid problems, stomach pain and schizophrenia — her biggest limitation in getting care was the fact that she was born deaf.

Within an hour of arriving in the emergency department, Hay was admitted into the UVM Medical Center, where she stayed for three days. She had not discussed the admission with an in-person interpreter, and during the whole time she was there, she spent a total of 22 minutes signing with a remote interpreter through Skype-like technology, according to findings by the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

Both Hay and her son asked for an in-person interpreter throughout her stay, but she never got one — despite the fact that the hospital had a translation coordinator on staff whose job includes American Sign Language interpretation.

Hay later had a procedure, and the doctor who performed it could not verify to state officials whether she had given informed consent, according to a decision from the Human Rights Commission.

In May, the commission declared unanimously that Hay has the legal grounds to pursue a discrimination case, and that staff at the UVM Medical Center had merely “a surface-level understanding of deaf people and deaf culture.”

The hospital told VTDigger that it did not provide adequate services to Hay, has made efforts to improve its overall treatment of deaf patients, and has tried to settle with Hay and her lawyer, with no success.

“We agree that we did not provide this patient with the quality of communication that she should have received, and that we strive to achieve,” Michael Carrese, the hospital’s spokesperson, said in a statement. “We have apologized to her for that shortcoming.”

“We took this as a learning opportunity, and have strengthened our translation services in a number of ways,” Carrese said.

Nonetheless, Hay’s lawyer said she’s afraid to go back to the hospital.

Seven cases since 2010

For Barbara Prine, the disability lawyer with Vermont Legal Aid who represented Hay, the case was all too familiar.

Since 2010, Prine has personally worked with five deaf patients, including Hay, to lodge seven separate discrimination complaints against UVM Medical Center.

The hospital settled several of those cases before officials started investigations. Hay has not agreed to settle her case, and Prine is now working on a new case with the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

In several of the cases, Prine said, the hospital gave deaf patients access to a remote interpreter through a device similar to an iPad, and using video technology similar to Skype, but the device often doesn’t work or takes too long for staff to turn on.

“Each one of these complainants wanted an in-person interpreter, and instead they got a machine that didn’t work,” she said.

Prine said the patients should be given in-person interpreters to discuss procedures, medical complaints and consent for care. The hospital should only use remote interpreters over the Internet when nurses check in briefly with a patient who has already met with an in-person interpreter.

“Sign language is a three-dimensional language, so it doesn’t play well on a screen,” Prine said. “It just is never going to work as well on a screen. If you’re having a conversation about someone’s condition, you’re getting informed consent for a procedure, you need an in-person interpreter.”

Ed Paquin, the executive director of Disability Rights Vermont, agrees. Although he has had no involvement in these cases, he said the basic idea of a deaf person having a “reasonable accommodation” in the form of in-person interpretation in the hospital is a no-brainer. [...] Read the full article at the link above.