A new remote sign language interpretation service which uses a network of videophones to provide interpretation services in consultations between health professionals and deaf people, has been launched by the Leicester Centre for Deaf People.

The telecare initiative, backed by Leicestershire Health Authority, is the first such videophone sign translation service to be provided by the NHS, and is intended to help provide deaf people with equal and fair access to health services.

Wallace Pointon, health improvement modernisation manager for disabilities at Leicestershire health authority, said the service had been developed as part of plans to develop telecare services by 2005, to address inequalities in accessing services.

"We identified it can take up to 2 weeks to obtain a sign language interpreter," said Pointon. With only about one sign interpreter for every 140 deaf people in the UK, the lack of qualified interpreters presents a major obstacle to healthcare provision for deaf people.

As interpreters often have to travel long distances a 15 minute consultation can wind up taking 2 hours and prove extremely expensive. "We identified that it can take up to two weeks to obtain a sign language interpreter a position similar across the country," said Pointon.

Philip Kilgour, a director at the Leicester Centre for Deaf People, said: “By providing a three way visual communication between interpreter, deaf person and healthcare provider, the video links will improve the Deaf community’s access to health services."

He added that the service will enable deaf people to have equal access to primary and acute health services, which will be a statutory requirement with the introduction of the new Disability Discrimination Act.

Stephen Rooney, head of public affairs at the British Deaf Association, told EHM that information technology is extremely important for the deaf community, and that while there will always be a need for interpreters to be present at important consultations: "Videophone technology represents a major breakthrough in the lives of Deaf people."

The new service will be delivered through videoconferencing technology — provided by videophone manufacturer Motion Media and telecare consultants Sumlock  -–  and installed at 13 different sites.

Videophones connected by ISDN lines will be located at the Leicester Centre for Deaf People, three University hospitals, one community hospital, at four GP practices, six local libraries and at the homes of four qualified sign language interpreters.

To access the translation service the GP, consultant or nurse first calls the service co-ordinator at the Leicester Centre for Deaf People, and details the nature of the interpretation required, including any confidentiality issues, and whether a female or male interpreter is required.

Leicestershire Health Authority is developing the service as part of a wider program of telecare service development. "We saw an opportunity in telecare services to provide more rapid access to interpreting services," said Pointon.

The July 2000 NHS Plan requires all NHS organisations to offer telecare and telemedicine services by 2005. In addition to sign translation services the Health Authority is now negotiating to provide language translation across the network.

“And increasingly we plan to use the network for healthcare,” said Pointon. "We are already using the system for remote consultations between a walk in centre and the accident and emergency department".

Where Leicestershire is leading other parts of the country look set to follow. Kate Geiss, spokesperson for Motion Media confirmed that negotiations are underway with other UK health organisations to introduce similar videophone sign translation services, with further contract announcements expected later in 2002.