Deaf and hard-of-hearing patients file lawsuit against Washington healthcare provider

The largest healthcare provider in the state of Washington is currently facing a lawsuit over its use of faulty video remote interpreting (VRI) technology.

According to Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a legal center based in New York and California, Providence St. Joseph Health failed to provide deaf or hard-of-hearing patients with adequate sign language interpreting services. Instead of in-person interpreters, Providence relied on VRI to communicate with patients — in several cases, however, lack of staff training and poor internet connection led to mishaps such as sudden, repeated disconnections and blurry video.

“While VRI can be a useful tool, especially to increase access to healthcare services in rural locations where ASL interpreters are few and far between, its use requires a very high standard of technical capacity and staff capabilities,” said Meredith Weaver, a senior staff attorney at DRA. “Our clients’ experiences demonstrate that Providence has not ensured either of those prerequisites yet relies heavily on VRI as the mode of interpretation.”

The current case includes three plaintiffs who all requested in-person interpreting services that were not fulfilled. In some instances, patients had to delay appointments due to a lack of interpreters available to provide in-person services — eventually, they agreed to work with VRI services to speed the process up, however Providence allegedly did not have the technical capacity to provide adequate VRI either. When provided with interpreters via VRI services, they claimed to encounter blurred screens and sudden disconnections that made it difficult to focus on the concerns of the appointment at hand.

“I advocated for my needs repeatedly over the years at different Providence locations, to no avail,” said Kate Spencer, one of the three plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “It is discouraging and exhausting to see how no matter how much effort I have tried to put into improving things, discrimination continues to occur. We are not asking for much.”

Once, when two of her Saturday appointments were suddenly rescheduled, Spencer was told that it was “too much extra work” to schedule an American Sign Language interpreter to attend an appointment on a Saturday.

Earlier this year, another healthcare provider was the center of a similar lawsuit — in Tennessee, a patient received a partial amputation of his right leg as a result of delayed care for a severe blood clot. Although the patient requested an in-person interpreter, he was only offered VRI services — due to poor connectivity, he was not able to adequately describe his pain, leading to a premature discharge from the hospital. His case worsened, requiring amputation. After the amputation, he was informed that the procedure likely would not have been necessary if he had received proper care early on.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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