LOS ANGELES – Going to the dentist can be a stressful experience for anyone, but even more daunting when there’s communication barriers.
Due to cultural and language barriers, people who are deaf or hard of hearing often do not have access to effective communication within the healthcare system. Those disparities can lead to misdiagnosis, mistreatment, limited access to care and poorer outcomes.
“Without communication, you don’t have trust,” said Andre Moorea deaf interpreter and teacher of American Sign Language.
Born deaf, Moore has spent years advocating for people in the deaf community, working to bridge the gap between the hearing world and the deaf world.
“Some individuals overlook the value of communication, but we as humans the way we live and move through life is through communication. And that’s important,” Moore said.
the National Association of the Deaf says that most medical training programs do not adequately prepare medical personnel to communicate effectively with deaf people. In addition, health care is routinely inaccessible to deaf people people due to communication and language barriers.
Last year, Moore shared her passion for accessibility, communication, and language with dental students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
“The former president of the Special Patient Care Club, Jonina Capino, was initially inspired by talking to people about Special Olympics. And directed the rest of the board to begin implementing and finding ways to increase sign language proficiency,” said Benjamin Kurnick, a third-year student at UCLA School of Dentistry.
The club aims to increase awareness, understanding and empathy with the population with special needs.
After securing funding from Dr. Eric Sung, a UCLA professor and chair of special patient care, Kurnick partnered with Moore to launch a five-part course for dental students.
“Not only to learn American Sign Language, but also to learn about the culture and history of the deaf and hard of hearing community,” Kurnick said. “With every barrier to health care, there will be fewer people seeking health care.”
Moore shared personal experiences of the deaf community with students.
“It’s not necessarily an interpreter for the deaf, it’s an interpreter for the two parties that have this exchange. And so sometimes a doctor or a dentist or a medical professional or a specialist is not trained enough to know how to engage a deaf person or the deaf community,” Moore said. “Sometimes with an interpreter it can take a bit of time. And having to make it easier to go back and forth, the doctor could choose not to take care of it and leave.”
Moore says doctors will often speak to the interpreter rather than the patient directly.
“They’ll just focus on the performer and say things like, ‘Oh, tell them, tell them, tell them. And it’s kind of disheartening because you don’t feel that patient-doctor relationship or that rapport.”
He spoke to dental students about finding creative solutions to bridge communication gaps.
“Whether it’s writing both ways, whether it’s having a transparent mask as an option,” Moore said. “And then move on to the funny signs, sort of, related to the dental office: brushing teeth, flossing, toothbrush.”
Although it is an elective course, dozens of students attended the virtual sessions.
“It was amazing. We had so much positive feedback and so much interest,” Kurnick said.
While the course has only received funding once, Kurnick says discussions are underway to offer it to students in the future.
The lecture course covering American Sign Language dental terms is available online so that anyone can access it.
Suppliers can also find online resources offering strategies improve communication between healthcare professionals and patients.
“We would welcome the opportunity to help expand the knowledge of other healthcare professionals and to be able to help serve the deaf and hard of hearing community,” Kurnick said. “My belief is that as much exposure as we can get, it can only benefit us in the long run.”