Medical Interpreting Services: The Right to Decide

By Samantha Poteet

Loveland, CO - Paula Harsin, the Program Director at Banner Health Language and Cultural Services, sent a letter dated May 21, 2019 to Nouri Marrakchi informing him that he did not have the right to a live interpreter by default for his first appointment with his new primary care physician. Marrakchi was notified via the letter that he may come in to “try out VRI and allow us to assess if it will provide [him] with effective communication.”

If Marrakchi chooses not to come in at his earliest convenience to do the VRI assessment prior to the appointment, then there will “not be a[n] in-person interpreter” provided. Marrakchi shared with The Deaf Report that Harsin never mentioned anything about the “VRI assessment” during the phone conversation earlier this week on Monday, when Harsin first notified him of Banner Health’s policy on the use of VRI interpreters. Not only does Marrakchi argue that Banner Health is denying his Section 504 right to effective communication, he also asserts that it is the Deaf person’s right to determine what communication method(s) works best for them.

This is not the first time hospitals and medical centers, including Banner Health, have been the target of scrutiny due to their refusal to provide in-person interpreters for Deaf patients.

Two years ago, twelve Deaf plaintiffs co-filed a lawsuit in Arizona against Banner Health for failing to provide on-site interpreters (and auxiliary communication aids) on the grounds that their VRI systems were not functional and malfunctioning and their personnel were not adequately trained in the proper use of VRI systems. Banner Health operates numerous urgent care sites, surgery centers, and hospitals in Arizona, Alaska, California, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, and Wyoming; the lawsuit is still pending.

According to Sandra Sunderland et al v. Bethesda Hospital, Inc., another lawsuit filed two years ago in Florida on the behalf of nine Deaf hospital patients and the Florida Association of the Deaf, Bethesda Hospital’s risk management team determined that the nursing staff (specifically nurses assigned to the Deaf patient) can determine whether the VRI services are adequate in providing effective communication for the Deaf patient once the device is set up in the room. Bethesda Hospital has gone as far as requiring any Deaf patient who refuse to use VRI services to provide their own live interpreter(s).

Bethesda Hospital also had a 2006 federal settlement agreement with the United States, which favored the requirement of interpreter access for Deaf patients and stated a definition of what constitutes an interpreter:

The term “qualified sign language interpreter,” “oral interpreter,” or “interpreter” means an interpreter who is able to interpret competently, accurately and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any specialized terminology necessary for effective communication in a Hospital setting to a “Patient” or a “Companion” who is deaf or hard of hearing.

Medical service providers view VRI services as a cost-effective approach for Deaf patients, which is yet to be justified in empirical research.

If you have or anyone you know has experienced accessibility issues with any doctor, medical center, hospital, or mental health services agency, feel free to contact The Deaf Research Foundation (click here to send an e-mail message).

DISCLAIMER: The Deaf Research Foundation will be collecting data on barriers of accessibility to health care services for the Deaf community as one of their studies, so any information you share may or may not be included in the studies.