In a blow to disabled patients’ rights, a federal court has ruled that a hospital does not have to provide a live interpreter for a deaf patient suffering a heart attack, when other “effective” means are available.
Federal judges rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that a live interpreter was necessary in the midst of an emergency, concluding the hospital’s use of written notes and gestures sufficed to meet the hospital’s obligations under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). The ruling could inhibit deaf patients’ access to live interpreters at health care centers and discourage hospitals from supplying live means of communication to the hearing impaired.
The case of Martin v. Halifax Healthcare Systems, Inc. involved three completely deaf individuals who visited Halifax Hospital on different occasions. One patient visited the health care center during a heart attack, another after a fall and a third patient accompanied her pregnant daughter to the hospital during delivery. The patients’ primary means of communication is American Sign Language.
All three contended the defendants failed to provide live sign language interpreters during at least some portions of their stay, in violation of Title III of the ADA. Title III requires that public accommodations provide “auxiliary aids and services” to ensure “effective communication” with persons with hearing disabilities. The nature, length, complexity, and context of the communication at issue and the individual’s normal method of communication must be considered before assessing whether a particular service must be provided.
Two of the patients were provided with an interpreter on some occasions, but other times communicated with hospital staff by written note, gestures and in some instances, a video relay interpreting service. The plaintiffs argued that anything aside from an ASL interpreter was inappropriate for treatment or a hospitalization involving complicated medical procedures and terminology. However, the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida said there was no evidence that the alternative methods of communication precluded the patients’ understanding of their circumstances or medical treatment. Additionally, the court ruled there was no testimony or other evidence that any plaintiff would have reached a different decision about treatment options or reached a more beneficial result if the medical providers had communicated via a live ASL interpreter.
The decision could influence future cases in which the availability of a live ASL interpreter at a hospital is in dispute. Federal judges said in their opinion there is no current precedent obligating a hospital to provide an interpreter on every medical interaction with a deaf person. Numerous court rulings have influenced how provisions of the ADA are interpreted. The hearing impaired and their family members should ensure they understand their rights under the ADA and what services are required to be provided.
From a medical malpractice perspective, this creates quite a quandary. Where communication is key, and a doctor fails to understand a patients complaints and likewise fails to appropriately treat that patient within the applicable standard of care, can the doctor be sued? can the hospital be held liable?