A U.K. survey of deaf health care workers shows many feel frustrated by a lack of transparent masks and adequate communication-support policies.
Many deaf health care workers communicate visually, through lip reading and sign language. During the COVID-19 pandemic, universal mask wearing and other environmental conditions, such as social distancing, have hindered their ability to communicate with patients and colleagues.
“The shocking finding was the extent to which health care professionals were unsupported in their workplace,” said lead author Dr. Helen Grote, a neurologist at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS (National Health Service) Foundation Trust in London.
“Several respondents reported the unkindness with which they were treated by colleagues due to communication difficulties, which only served to increase their sense of isolation,” she told Reuters Health by email.
Dr. Grote and her colleagues aimed to understand the impact that lack of transparent masks and appropriate workplace adaptations had on communication, confidence and well-being among so-called “D/deaf” health care workers during the pandemic.
In the term “D/deaf,” the team explains in Occupational Medicine, “‘Deaf’ (capital D) is typically used to refer to those individuals who are part of the Deaf community, and use BSL (British Sign Language) as their first language, whereas ‘deaf’ (little d) refers to those who use spoken English and lipreading. Individuals in either group may wear cochlear implants or hearing aids.”
The researchers sent a survey to all members of the U.K. Deaf Healthcare Professionals Group on Facebook, to the Healthcare Professionals with Hearing Loss listserv, and to other social media sites.
Of the 83 responses they received from workers in 31 health care professions—including 18 doctors and 14 nurses—68 percent reported severe or profound hearing loss, and 87 percent relied on lip reading. Prior to the pandemic, 93 percent had cared for patients in the clinic.
Only 11 percent of respondents said they had access to transparent masks. More than three-quarters reported feeling anxious and afraid of making mistakes due to communication problems, and 17 percent were removed from clinical roles due to a lack of appropriate workplace adaptations.
A third indicated that, if transparent masks or alternatives would not be available, they would need to consider an alternative career.
Overall, 78 percent of respondents reported that, during the pandemic, the communication needs of D/deaf HCPs were not being met.
“D/deaf HCPs felt left behind, isolated and frustrated by a lack of transparent masks and reasonable adjustments to meet their communication needs,” the researchers conclude. “Loss of experienced, qualified HCPs has a significant economic and workforce impact, particularly during a pandemic.”