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2 new studies highlight health service communication failures

SignHealth and HealthWatch have conducted studies to understand how well the NHS meets people’s communication needs

It’s vital that people who are deaf or have hearing loss receive equal access to health services. The Accessible Information Standard (AIS) was introduced 5 years ago and is a key mechanism for making sure this happens.

The AIS requires NHS care and publicly funded adult social care services to identify, record, and meet the communication needs of patients and service users with a disability, impairment or sensory loss, this includes deaf people and people with hearing loss. RNID works with the NHS and other organisations to raise awareness of the AIS, to draw attention to where it is not being properly applied, and show how this affects patients.

SignHealth and Healthwatch have both carried out recent surveys to understand more about how well the AIS is working for people needing advice and treatment from the NHS.

SignHealth’s survey of over 900 patients and NHS professionals, published on 15 February, uncovered serious gaps in implementation and communication provisions for deaf and disabled patients. Among other shocking findings, only a third of professionals reporting they had regular training in accessible communication, and a further third having never had any training. Over two-thirds of Deaf people had no accessible way to contact their GP.

Deaf and disabled patients highlighted how poor communication has led to misdiagnosis and/or improper treatment, missed appointments and patients unable to make informed decisions about their own healthcare and treatment. Many Deaf people said that they don’t seek medical attention when they need it, because of the exhausting struggle to have British Sign Language interpreters at appointments and operations. Ultimately, this leads to serious health inequalities. 

With NHS England currently reviewing the Accessible Information Standard, HealthWatch joined forces with leading disability organisations, including RNIB, RNID, Mencap and SignHealth, in calling for stronger accountability in its implementation. Evidence from Healthwatch England shows that the statutory duty is being significantly compromised and that its implementation has been patchy. They reviewed the stories shared with them by 6,200 people between April 2019 and September 2021 to determine how well the NHS is delivering the Accessible Information Standard. While they found that some people get good communications support from services, many more do not. 

HealthWatch’s Your Care, Your Way campaign recommends that:

  • health and care services should be made more accountable for delivering the standard
  • every health and care service should have an accessibility champion
  • better IT systems are needed so that patients can tell services about their support needs
  • people with communication needs must be involved in designing better services
  • and NHS staff should have compulsory accessibility training.

RNID strongly supports the work of SignHealth and HealthWatch to identify the key issues facing patients and their recommendations which, if acted on, will make a huge difference to patients’ experiences with the NHS. We will continue to work closely with NHS England and provide them with our insights and lived experience, so that the AIS is fully implemented in practice, to enhance the health and wellbeing of the communities we support.

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